Two For The Road (1967): A Rom-Com for a New Era

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“If there’s one thing I despise it’s an indispensable woman.” – Albert Finney

The world seemed a very different place in 1967. It had changed and with it, love and the romantic comedy underwent a transformation of its own. Because, in some sense, humanity had reached a new tipping point. It’s easy to make assumptions: to cite Vietnam, social unrest, student protests, racial violence, any number of issues. There was this underlying implication the 50s and the early 60s (before November 22nd, 1963) were a time of hope and promise — surplus naivete.

Even the films had changed. Just look to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde. Then, there was a new batch of progressive works like In The Heat of The Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Two for The Road must fit into this puzzle as well, though it’s place is more difficult to explain and thus, we might wager a guess why it’s not often voiced in the same company. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with it being a weaker movie. Still, because it doesn’t capture the “moment” as much, it cannot easily be rewarded for being cutting-edge.

And yet, in its own way, it was of its time and representative of this ongoing form of change. Because it is a mature romance. Audrey Hepburn — the movie-watching world’s darling — has had her heart broken, been trampled on, and done some irreparable damage of her own.

This was not just make-believe, mind you. Reality and the theatrical overlap closer than we probably realize (Hepburn’s marriage to Mel Ferrer was sadly on a fast decline). However, Stanley Donen, coming from his pedigree as a musical maestro, never quite lost the sense of romanticism — his belief in magical things.

You could say Audrey Hepburn was one of the perfect embodiments of his beliefs because she was so sweet, demure, and beautiful. We can all imagine her at the center of romances galore — she was in some of the most iconic, after all. And yet amidst the lingering illusions of Hollywood, there is this sense of something more heart-wrenching and hard.

Albert Finney might be the finest vehicle to acts as an opposite force of nature — larger-than-life, barrel-chested, and in many ways the utter antithesis of Audrey. He came of age in the resurgence of Britain’s gritty kitchen sink dramas. He was by no means a counter-cultural figure, but he has the gusto of a Brando and his disciples — a bit of the cocky bravado that’s nevertheless disarming. In no small way, they make the perfect couple in cinematic terms, sitting at the crossroads of the decade. Somehow they’ve met and found themselves on near equal footing.

The story itself, by Frederic Raphael, is ambitious as it skips and jumps through a love story, a constant exercise in cuts and whip-fast transitions. In fact, you might say Two For the Road is won in the editing room even more so than most films because it builds peaks and valleys with both a frenetic pace and constant changing snapshots of life. It resonates on these levels without ever feeling turgid. If it does turn on a dime, then it gives the freedom — the necessary space — for leeway and visual connections between past and present.

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It commences at the beginning of the end. The husband and wife slump in a car, watching cynically as a pair of newlyweds walk out of a church. They see their youth reflected back at them. But there were happier times once, what now seems like many eons ago.

The adolescent days full of sun-soaked afternoons and equally idyllic intentions. The French countryside was ripe with promise. Open-air automobiles and “thou” was all that necessitated a contented life. Of course, those were the days when “thou” meant a happy companion. Riding in the MG with a persistent “donk” in the engine only facilitated moments to look back on and laugh.

Finney is constantly mislaying his passport, chomping through apple scruff, and doing his Bogart impressions. One of his finest hours is strolling into a ritzy hotel that they can’t afford, his coat bulging with the edible spoils from the outside — only to drop them all over the lobby.

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Hepburn is clothed in red, hair free, and alive on so many levels. Picking up a ride as a hitchhiker a la Claudette Colbert. Seeking shelter from the rain or frolicking in the shallows without a care in the world. It’s an extension of her earlier personas from Roman Holiday and Funny Face.

Then come the spirals charting the bitter dissolution of a marriage as it crumbles into fractured pieces of apathy. Affairs follow on both sides, involving a cajoling lady motorist and a supremely confident French romantic. We cannot help but feel they are pale imitations of the real thing. They are only a momentary antidote. They cannot truly satisfy and repair the wounds.

The paradoxical aspect of love is evident with time. Yes, the honeymoon is over, the nagging begins, the arguments, raised voices, life gets in the way. And yet somehow it seems true that you often only know you love somebody else after the speed bumps and roadblocks. Closer still, you love them in spite of them.

Henry Mancini’s score is one of his most lastingly melancholy, striking the notes back and forth between a whirly gig warmth of summer carnivals and then the summers after when you’ve fallen out of love. The repeating string motif continually reinforces this feeling even as he reaches out for lingering bits of nostalgia.

Because there’s a playfulness dancing within the frames just as there is elegance. How can it not be with Audrey Hepburn? So, while we have a sense these are movie stars — glamorous, richly-attired, all the superlatives — their love affair is besieged with the slings and arrows aimed at each of us.

Petty squabbles. Tedium. Poor communication. Evaporating memories. Jobs and families. Reprioritized lives. Most important of all, falling back in love — even if it’s only the hint of a spark — sometimes it’s enough. So have Audrey and Donen grown into a new decade? We must admit they are different, wiser, wounded even, but the great gift is how Two for The Road still leaves some space for love to exist.

In the midst of a myriad of distractions and messy lives between flawed people, it really is a miracle. It is romance coming to terms with changing times and yet not quite giving up on the ideals of romantic commitment.

4/5 Stars

Amazing Grace (2006)

e09ee-amazinggraceposterBased on the life of Christian activist and British parliament member William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace is a very important and powerful film. Wilberforce is a unique and remarkably extraordinary man, to say the least.

The story opens as a dreadfully sick Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud) takes a holiday at the home of some close friends. They introduce him to his future wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), however, to begin with, they resist any romantic involvement and remain friends. He relates his story to her about how he became an Evangelical Christian while also a popular member of the British Parliament.

He had considered leaving politics for theological studies, however, he is persuaded by friends, including William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), to continue in parliament. He is asked to tackle the highly unpopular issue of slavery, and after a visit to his aging mentor John Newton (Albert Finney), Wilberforce’ fervor increases. Due to his own regrets about formerly being a slave trader, Newton is hounded by guilt and urges Wilberforce to end the trade.

Soon William Pitt becomes prime minister, and Wilberforce gets ready to bring a bill outlawing slavery to the house. He gets some unexpected support, but his popularity dwindles, and he is strongly opposed by a coalition with a large stake in the trade. His bill is ultimately beaten outright, but William continues the cause for numerous years still to no avail.

Now back in the present, Wilberforce is sickly and dejected, but Barbara encourages him to push on. They get married soon after and the fight continues without much progress. However, finally William devises a clever plan to cripple the slave trade, and he gains some new allies. His colleague and friend Pitt is slowly dying, but he supports Wilberforce. After many years of tireless struggle, a bill is passed in parliament that effectively ends the slave trade in 1807.

Wilberforce is one of those often unsung heroes who truly did something amazing. Pun intended. With the release of Lincoln more recently, there are definite connections that could be made between the films. Like Lincoln, Wilberforce worked for more than political clout, because he knew what was good and right, and so he fought for those principles. That is the sign of a truly great man just like Abraham Lincoln. Much like Wilberforce himself, this film is less heralded than Lincoln, but I would wager that it is no less important as a historical drama.

4/5 Stars

Two for the Road (1967)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney,this romantic comedy gives a more realistic view of love and marriage. Mark and Joanna have been married about 10 years now and despite their wealth they seem unhappy. The non-linear story relates how they both met each other while vacationing in France. They were young, energetic  and in love. The film also covers their travels across France with Mark’s former girlfriend, her analytic husband, and their spoiled daughter. Then, we learn Mark finally got work as an architect. However  now with a small daughter, the marriage is dragging and they both have their own affairs. Despite the loss of their original passion, the couple realizes they are in love so Mark quits his job so they can start anew in Rome. This film gives off a sunny 60s vibe with a playful score by Henry Mancini, bright colors, French scenery  and of course love. I always enjoy Audrey Hepburn but I also felt Finney did an excellent job playing opposite of her. Most importantly  director Stanley Donen may have made a Hollywood style romance, but he made it more recognizably human than most. It does not simply examine the passion alone because there are many aspects of this big, messy experience called love.

4/5 Stars