By Richard Ades
Loss, anger and guilt are at the centers of two movies I caught recently: The Lost Daughter and Drive My Car. The former mainly gives Olivia Colman a chance to show off her acting chops, while the latter is pretty close to perfect.
Not to dismiss Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directing debut completely, but I just don’t share the high opinion most critics seem to have of The Lost Daughter. As strong a talent as Colman is, she can’t rise above a film that seems artificially suspenseful and gets bogged down in flashbacks that aren’t particularly interesting. Also, at two hours, it seems unnecessarily long.
On the other hand, Japan’s Drive My Car runs for three hours, and not one moment seems superfluous. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes his time, to be sure, but every scene contributes to and builds toward the cathartic finale. And though its central character, like Daughter’s, is haunted by the past, the film isn’t burdened by excessive flashbacks.
That’s largely because Hamaguchi feeds us the necessary background information via an extended prologue that runs for some 40 minutes. (We know it’s a prologue because the “opening credits” don’t even appear until it’s over.) In it, we’re introduced to Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a theatrical actor and director, and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), who writes for television. We learn that the couple share a supportive and oddly creative relationship: After sex, Oto relates imaginative stories that Yusuke parrots back to her the following day, inspiring her future scripts.
However, the two also share pain over the daughter they lost when she was only 4, leaving them childless. Another complication is the secret grief Yusuke feels after coming home unexpectedly one day and finding Oto making love with a young actor named Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Though Yusuke doesn’t confront his wife about his discovery, it seems to create tension between them that may be on the verge of coming to a head when Oto suddenly succumbs to an unexpected health crisis.
After setting the stage with this crucial background information, director/co-writer Hamaguchi finally plunges into the development that gives the story its name: Two years later, Yusuke climbs into his beloved red Saab and drives to a Hiroshima theater festival where he’s been hired to direct and possibly star in an ambitious, multilingual production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
Once there, Yusuke learns that festival rules require him to be driven to and from the rehearsal venue, a disappointment because he cherishes the solitude that driving provides, plus he uses the time to study his lines with the help of a cassette tape his wife recorded before her death. It’s only at the insistence of festival officials that he agrees to accept the services of Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a stoic young woman who treats her driving responsibilities as a sacred duty.
Another shock arrives when a familiar but unwelcome face shows up at the auditions for Uncle Vanya: Koji, who has sought out the opportunity to work with the widower of the woman he loved and admired. The younger man’s connection to his late wife threatens to unleash the complicated feelings of anger, grief and guilt that Yusuke has struggled to contain since her demise.
Meanwhile, an even more profound relationship begins to develop between him and the dutiful driver Misaki, who has her own painful past and is, he learns, the same age his daughter would have been if she’d survived childhood. No wonder Yusuke finds it increasingly hard to deal with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and its pessimistic philosophizing about the disappointments of existence.
With its gentle, patient exploration of life’s challenges, buoyed by exquisitely restrained performances by stars Nishijima and Miura, Drive My Car can’t help reminding me of the film that first turned me on to Japanese cinema: Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. That 1953 classic is considered a masterpiece, and Drive My Car may well be the same. At the very least, it should be a top contender in this year’s Academy Awards.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Drive My Car, available only in theaters, opens Jan. 14 at Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.