They make something wonderful out of being alive!
In a lot of ways, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road plays like a progenitor of relationship dramas like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. The key difference is that Two for the Road is considerably lighter than all of those works, offering a comparable amount of thematic depth but notably less tonal intensity. It’s a movie that exists within the specific framework of Henry Mancini’s oft-repeated main theme: energetic yet regretful, breezy yet melancholy.
The concept is a novel one: Donen will tell the long, complicated story of a marriage, but will limit himself to scenes from various road trips the couple has taken over the years. The man is Mark (Albert Finney, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and the woman is Joanna (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Years ago, they met on a ferry crossing, when Joanna was part of a girls choir. Mark was a lone traveler who helped fix the choir bus the girls were traveling on. When every girl but Joanna came down with a case of chicken pox, Joanna opted to hitchhike with Mark. So began a long romance. Now, they seem to be a bitter married couple, always bickering and holding grudges against each other for various unknown reasons. So, as they take yet another road trip, they reminisce and argue about the road trips of the past.
If the movie sounds weightier than your typical Donen fare: well, it is, and it isn’t. There are times when the director allows the movie to head into moments of ferocious verbal combat (echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and it bluntly explores the consequences of the extramarital affairs both parties have engaged in at various points. However, there’s a certain New Wave breathlessness to the film’s editing and pace, as the director leaps quickly between misery and joy and everything in between as he hops around the timeline of Mark and Joanna’s marriage. Donen avoids long, dramatic pauses like the plague, cutting out all the fat so ruthlessly that it frequently feels as if the movie is right on the verge of tipping into a montage (occasionally, that’s exactly what happens).
The shifts can be a little jarring at times, but it largely works: having scenes both cheerful and grim collide against each with such frequency gives you a good sense of just how complex Mark and Joanna’s feelings are, and it doesn’t take long before you feel like you’ve known them a very long time (I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment… the movie never feels overlong). Finney and Hepburn are excellent together, generating charming sparks when they need to and playing the tougher material persuasively (they’re never quite called upon to go full Burton and Taylor, but still). The roles represented a change-of-pace for both actors: it’s rare to see Finney play the romantic leading man, and rarer still to see Hepburn play such a liberated spirit.
The only real consequence of Donen’s audience-friendly efforts to keep things moving at such a speed is that the movie never quite hits you as hard as the aforementioned similarly-themed efforts. It’s a worthy, thoughtful film, but it trades a certain measure of emotional heft in favor of accessibility.
Two for the Road (Blu-ray) serves up a terrific 1080p/2.35:1 transfer, offering remarkable detail, impressive depth and rich, healthy colors. Given the film’s lovely outdoor locations, it’s a treat to look at. Skin tones look natural, scratches and flecks are almost entirely absent and the image never suffers from softness. A moderate amount of natural grain has been left intact. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track sounds strong, too, with Mancini’s melodic score getting a rich, full mix and blending nicely with the dialogue. Supplements include an audio commentary with Donen, a second commentary with Twilight Time regulars Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, an isolated score track, a clip of old newsreel footage, a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Kirgo.
Two for the Road has been topped by a variety of films in a similar vein that have been made in the years since, but still manages to feel unique thanks to Donen’s energetic directorial voice.