Film and Television Features

Two for the Road (1967)

Two for the Road doesn’t fit the romantic movie mold; its emotional heft is not built on formula. The film is an honest portrait of a 12-year relationship through courtship, discord, and indifference that predates Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Outside forces move the plot of a traditional romantic movie, but here they have less pull. Conflict is generated within the pair’s bond as they grapple with the demands of career and parenthood. The narrative is nonlinear, discarding chronology in favor of spatial matches that have a cumulative effect. This is a unique approach, yet the film moves effortlessly from comedy to poignant drama thanks to the talents involved.

Mark and Joanna Wallace, played by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, are a well-to-do married couple whose lives have fallen into a rut. He’s a successful architect who feels stifled by the burdens of marriage, keeping mum about his infidelities. Joanna also feels trapped in her role of housewife; motherhood has curtailed her own freedom, but she’s unwilling to efface herself to serve his inflated ego. Driving to the airport for a business trip to France, they stop by a church as newlyweds get inside a limo. “They don’t look very happy,” Joanna observes. “Why should they?” Wallace reasons. “They just got married.” On the plane, they start to reminisce, wondering at what point things began to go wrong.

The Oscar-nominated script was written by Frederic Raphael, whose previous feat was the screenplay for Darling, which uses an unreliable narrator to sharpen the ironic edge. Two for the Road ups the ante through the use of flashbacks, a filmmaking staple since the days of D.W. Griffith. Here the narrative structure shifts from present to past, but the past is fragmented, time-shifting through different stages of the relationship: as students during a backpacking trip; as newlyweds forced to share a road trip with Wallace’s old girlfriend, her anally-retentive husband, and their bratty child; as a cash-strapped couple driving a temperamental roadster, chance-meeting their future benefactor; and as parents juggling with new demands. Stanley Donen produced and directed the complex script, which took some skillful soft-shoe to pull off.

Donen began his professional career as a dancer and choreographer. He had loved movies since he was a kid and was fascinated by the possibilities of the medium. He was still in his twenties when Gene Kelly, his friend since Broadway days, made him his filmmaking assistant. It wasn’t an odd choice because Donen shared Kelly’s vision. The partnership shunned stage-bound musicals, and Donen specialized in solving technical challenges, like synchronizing double-exposure shots to create the illusion of Kelly dancing with his own reflection (Cover Girl), mixing live action with animation (Anchors Aweigh), or shooting dance sequences on the busy streets of New York (On the Town).

Working on his own, Donen made Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling (Royal Wedding), but cutting-edge techniques were only part of his stock-in-trade. His staging favors movement and energy but never misses the gist of the scene, keeping in tune with the actors’ rhythms and the dramatic or comedic truth. This choreographic instinct served him well when musicals began to fade, evident on stylish thrillers like Charade and Arabesque. Two for the Road posed a new set of challenges, with extensive traveling, location shooting, and continuity puzzles. Donen found the pulse that moves the story: The characters are in a dance from the beginning, until they start to drag their feet.

Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney give sterling performances. Finney, coming off the back of Tom Jones and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was just beginning his long, illustrious career. In contrast, Hepburn would put her film career on hold in 1967 to devote her time to family, not returning to the screen until Robin and Marian. Together they achieve a rare chemistry that works well with physical comedy, pungent remarks, and kitchen sink sincerity. As the film progresses, the styles merge, but the characters are never lost.

The movie’s editing is outstanding, the script lending itself to some New Wave cross-cutting and occasional jump cuts. No less important is Henry Mancini’s wistful score. The theme song is one of his best. It’s not there just to underline the action—it serves as an emotional connector between the scenes.

Two for the Road wasn’t made in a vacuum. Donen had lived through two divorces by then, and his third was ahead. There are no deluded romantic notions here: home truths abound, and moments of happiness are counterbalanced by sadness. Wallace and Joanna are undergoing change, which threatens the foundations of their union. The binds that kept them together may not be strong enough - the road of life can be that cruel. Companionship demands compromises and fine-edged boundaries. All in all, it’s better than traveling alone.