When weighing the verdict for this car-centric tale of love and marriage, Judge Geoffrey Miller's love for Audrey Hepburn won out over his opposition to big oil.
Two For The Road is one those curious classics that has taken its sweet time getting onto DVD. The Oscar-nominated dramedy, directed by the legendary Stanley Donen, stars Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a couple dealing with the trials and tribulations of a rocky marriage. Falling in and out of love every time the wind blows, they're a volatile pair to say the least. Their relationship is far from ideal, but it makes for a great movie.
Facts of the Case
When we first meet Mark and Joanna Wallace, they're a couple on the verge of a breaking point. They're bored and frustrated—with the marriage, each other, and themselves. It wasn't always like this. Back when they first met, he was a struggling architect, she a singer on tour. They fall in love, get married, and have a child—all the things that are a part of a storybook romance. But happily ever after they ain't. Two For The Road traces the evolution of their relationship, from its naive youthful beginnings to the discontented disappointment of maturity and their final acceptance that, despite their problems, they love and need each other.
Relationships aren't easy. Some people spend their whole lives unable to find a successful, long-lasting one. Others stick it out in unsatisfying ones out of fear of being alone. So why do movies rarely portray the true nature of relationships? The modern day romantic comedy almost always concerns two people obviously perfect for each other who are too stupid to realize it. Then there's the weepy "chick flick," in which two star-crossed lovers overcome a cliché obstacle like disaster (a sinking boat, perhaps?) or disease. The thing both of these genres have in common is that they ignore the internal conflicts that couples wrestle with on an everyday basis. Why is it that Hollywood is incapable of honestly representing one of life's most universal experiences?
Similar thoughts must have been on the minds of screenwriter Frederic Raphael and director/producer Stanley Donen while they created Two For The Road. Detailing the ups and downs of a young British couple through their various road trips, it's full of the subtle nuanced push-and-pull and secret language of long-term relationships.
Episodic in nature, the film constantly switches back and forth between different points in the couple's life. It begins towards the end, when Mark and Joanna are bickering in an airplane. Then it flashes back to when Mark, a recent college graduate, was hitchhiking across France. He happens upon a bus carrying a traveling girls' choir. At first, he's attracted to Jackie (a young, gorgeous Jacqueline Bisset, who had her voice dubbed by another actress in post-production), but when she and the rest of the group come down with chicken pox, he sets off on the road with Joanna. While they don't get along initially, it isn't long before they're smitten with each other, checking into a hotel and spending the night together.
Two For The Road is at turns comedic and dramatic, skipping primarily between four different time periods: Mark and Joanna's courtship; their vacation with an American couple after getting married; a road trip in an old beat-up car when Joanna reveals that she's pregnant; and finally the couple, now with a young daughter, financially successful but emotionally distant. The segments featuring the other couple (Eleanor Bron and William Daniels), the epitome of obnoxious, boorish "Ugly Americans," bring the biggest laughs. When their bratty young daughter throws the car keys into a grassy field, Mark asks Joanna if she still wants a child. She defiantly replies, "I still want a child. I just don't want that child!" At the other end of the spectrum is the time-honored Hollywood melodrama (complete with swirling strings courtesy of Henry Mancini's wonderfully woozy score) that kicks in as Joanna takes off with another smarmy Frenchman (played by Georges Descrières with just the right mix of Gallic sleaze and charisma) and the Wallace's marriage threatens to shatter.
Along with the thriller Wait Until Dark, Two For The Road was one of the two movies Audrey Hepburn filmed in 1967 before entering semi-retirement. In her mid-30s at the time of filming, she's no longer the bright-eyed ingénue of Sabrina and Roman Holiday, but she still radiates the beauty and class that made her a star. That she effortlessly shifts from playing a naïve singer barely out of high school to a bored housewife is testament to her oft-underrated range. In a career full of standout performances, this is one of her best.
Albert Finney is best known these days as a distinguished older actor in films like Erin Brockovich and Big Fish, so his performance as the charming, yet sarcastic and irritable. Mark Wallace comes as a surprise. When he's not delivering witty lines in a baritone deadpan, he's doing a mean Bogart impersonation, sweeping Joanna off her feet or alienating her with cold jibes. He has a commanding screen presence and is perfectly capable of keeping up with the incomparable Hepburn, certainly no easy feat.
Of course, just because two actors are talented doesn't mean they have on-screen chemistry together. These two do. Feigning being in love and making googly eyes isn't too much of a challenge; convincingly portraying a long-time couple whose relationship is on the rocks is the tough part. They pull it off marvelously, spitting out their lines in bitter disgust and contorting their faces to reflect their resentful disappointment. They're the only speaking characters in the majority of the scenes, making this a true tour de force for both.
Director Donen, who made his name with classic musicals like Singin' In The Rain and Funny Face, brings just the right sense of elegant style and snappy pacing to the film. He captures the beautiful French countryside, which serves as the backdrop for much of the action, with such flair that he could have easily edited those shots into a separate travelogue. His superb sense of rhythm slides the film along from one vignette to the next, through clever quick cuts. Some of his decisions, like speeding up scenes for comedic effect Benny Hill-style, veer too far towards camp, but they're short enough that they don't annoy or distract.
Even though the actors and director are top-notch, it's writer Frederic Raphael's Oscar-nominated script that steers the film to greatness. Practically every line drips with wit and intelligence; this is a film with a lot of memorable quotes, both funny and meaningful. The complex narrative structure, flipping back and forth between time periods, has a much deeper impact than if the story was told linearly, since it allows us to quickly contrast the changes in the relationship. Big moments, like Mark and Joanna's wedding or the birth of their daughter, are wisely avoided in favor of concentrating on small quotidian details that add up to a detailed profile of a marriage in flux.
Raphael also makes sure that we know that, while they're good people at heart, Mark and Joanna are flawed individuals. Mark can't resist getting a good quip in, even during serious moments. When their first week together is up and they're about to part, Joanna says, "You just want me to become a beautiful memory, the sooner the better!" His response: "Who said anything about beautiful?" Joanna is often unreasonable, changing her mind at the drop of a dime and insisting he spend less time on his career. Both are adulterous. Raphael assumes we're mature enough to handle the warts-and-all approach—good call.
Minimalist menus, simple packaging, and a lack of special features should clue you in that the movie is the focus of this disc. The newly restored print, presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, looks like a million bucks, although the audio track is a tad flat. The only real noteworthy extra is Stanley Donen's commentary. He provides some worthwhile analysis and trivia, even though his voice has been mixed in a bit low. He sounds lonely too; while Audrey Hepburn, sadly, is no longer with us, I would have loved to hear Albert Finney and Frederic Raphael join Donen.
There are no earth-shattering surprises or big conflicts in Two For The Road; it's just the tale of two people living their lives. The metaphor at the heart of the film is an obvious one: traveling along roads as journey for life. It isn't always a smooth ride for Mark and Joanna, but they persevere through the rough patches. This is one of the finest explorations of love, relationships, and marriage ever committed to film. The cast and crew, comprised of the best around at the time, are simply fantastic. While it really deserves a full royal DVD treatment, it's a treat just to see it finally arrive at the digital party.
Movies like Two For The Road (and actresses like Audrey Hepburn) are proof that they just don't make 'em like they used to. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Stanley Donen
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