Two for the Road (1967) *** ½
Directed by: Stanley Donen.
Written by: Frederic Raphael.
Starring: Audrey Hepburn (Joanna Wallace), Albert Finney (Mark Wallace), Eleanor Bron (Cathy Manchester), William Daniels (Howard Manchester), Gabrielle Middleton (Ruth Manchester), Claude Dauphin (Maurice Dalbret), Nadia Gray (Francoise Dalbret), Georges Descrières (David), Jacqueline Bisset (Jackie), Judy Cornwell (Pat), Irène Hilda (Yvonne de Florac), Dominique Joos (Sylvia).
The film is about Mark and Joanna Wallace (Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn). They have been married for 12 years, have a daughter and are constantly at each other’s throats. The movie flashes back in forth in time to show this couple on several trips together – from them hitchhiking across Europe after meeting each other for the first time, to a trip in a rundown car when he is still struggling as a architect but they are happy, to an insufferable trip with another couple and their annoying daughter they refuse to discipline, to one where Mark’s boss, who has made them rich, places unrealistic demands on him, to finally the one they are currently on, and which may well be their last.
Donen was a director who loved his films to look good – and aside from his little forays into 1960s style I mentioned in the first paragraph – Two for the Road looks good at all times. The cinematography is beautiful at times – showing us the splendor of Europe, without stooping to just showing off landmarks. The costumes are immaculate, showing us the passage in time, in styles, in social standing so that we orient ourselves immediately to what trip we are actually seeing at that time. Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn are both attractive, likable actors. For a while, we are lulled into thinking that this will be another storybook, Hollywood romance. But gradually it becomes something deeper than that – something darker. The couple, who always bickered playfully, continue to bicker but lose the playfulness. The child that comes is a weight on them, even though they love her. Infidelity rears its head – first with him in a fling that means nothing, and then with her in a fling that most assuredly does. The young, idealistic couple we meet at the beginning are barely visible in the people they end up being 12 years later.
And yet Two for the Road still made the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest Movie Romances. Why? Because underneath everything these two do to each other, there is love. Most movie romances end where in real life the going gets tough. Romantic comedies are built on the basic concept of keeping the two people everyone knows should be together apart for the whole movie, so they can come together in the final reel and kiss – often in the rain or an airport – and the audience can cheer because we know they’ll live “happily ever after”. But life doesn’t work that way. Marriage is hard and requires work. Real married couples are not incandescently happy every moment of everyday.
This is the reality that Two for the Road explores. It gives us the Hollywood style romance at the beginning of the film, but as the movie goes along, we see less of that happy couple full of naïve hope, and more of the couple who bicker. And yet, in a very strange way, Mark and Joanna are meant for each other. They fit together, and in a strange way make each other happy, even when they are making each other miserable. Finney is a charming actor, and I am always somewhat surprised to see how good looking he was in the 1960s – I have a vision in my head of the aging man in Erin Brockovich, but with that deep voice, he really was attractive back then. Of Audrey Hepburn, nothing needs to be said about her fragile beauty. These two were stars back in 1967 – the could have made whatever they chose, but the fact that they chose to make this movie shows a little daring on their part – and both are rewarded with one of the best roles of their careers. Hepburn in particular is great in the film. Perhaps after so many cinematic romances – Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, etc – she wanted to show a different, more honest portrait of love, and in that she succeeds wonderfully well. Like the best cinematic romances, Two for the Road understands that love is not easy.