Life has been very hectic the past few months. I’ve been working on several writing assignments, switching from one novel to another; the LO, now poised to leave kindergarten and progress to Class I, requires a good deal of attention, and various lit fests or other book events have entailed (and are going to entail) some travelling.
So, when British actor Albert Finney passed on February 7th this year, while I did notice the news article about his death in the newspaper, I passed it by without it really registering who Albert Finney was (Poirot, in the 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, just in case, like me, you were clueless too). It was blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man who, a few days later, reminded me of Finney’s death and asked me if I was meaning to review a film of his by way of tribute. I thought I would: Two for the Road, I told Hurdy Gurdy Man in an e-mail.
But, the sad irony of fate: just a couple of days back, I got another e-mail from Hurdy Gurdy Man, informing me that the director of Two for the Road, Stanley Donen, had passed away as well. Stanley Donen (who died on February 21) had directed some of Hollywood’s most popular musicals, such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, before he directed Indiscreet and then moved to the UK, where he directed (among other films) The Grass is Greener, Charade, and Two for the Road, an important landmark in the history of British cinema—a classic film of the British New Wave.
This, therefore, is a tribute not to one person, but to two. An actor and a director. Albert Finney and Stanley Donen, both very accomplished men, and two whose work goes a long way in making Two for the Road a film worth watching.
Two for the Road begins on the road: Mark Wallace (Albert Finney), an architect, is travelling with his wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn), and almost as soon as their journey’s begun, you can see the friction between them. When they take their seats in the dining room of a car ferry, Mark receives a phone call from his wealthy client Maurice—who’s paying for this trip; Mark is being summoned for some work—and Mark forgets all about Joanna.
An incensed Joanna goes off to make a phone call of her own, and when Mark ends his call with Maurice, Joanna beckons him to talk to Caroline. Who Caroline? Mark is genuinely puzzled, and Joanna, eyes rolling (but not at all surprised) tells him it’s his daughter Caroline.
Later, in the aeroplane, Mark, searching for his passport, realizes he’s lost it. He panics, even getting up to ask that they turn back—and then Joanna quietly interrupts: here is his passport. It’s been in his bag all along; he simply hadn’t seen it.
… and that incident takes them back to the first time Joanna and Mark had met, twelve years earlier, on a Channel crossing. Mark was off to hitchhike across the South of France; Joanna was travelling with a women’s choir. When the ship docked and everybody was alighting, Mark found he’d lost his passport. He was frantically crawling on hands and knees, trying to find it, when Joanna bent down and discovered it in his bag.
Not much later, as the women travelled in their van, they passed Mark (who was hitching a ride in the back of a lorry). Mark was ‘adopted’ as a fellow passenger, and became part of the bunch.
And that was just the start of Joanna and Mark’s very first journey together.
Also, only the first of many journeys. Two for the Road is a film about journeys.
One is the journey a young and carefree Mark, and an equally bubbly, carefree Joanna make across France those many years ago, when they first meet and fall in love.
There is a journey, two years later, which Mark and Joanna make—travelling for the first and last time with another family. Their fellow passengers this time include Mark’s former girlfriend Cathy Manchester (Eleanor Bron), Cathy’s husband Howard ‘Howie’ Manchester (William Daniels) and their daughter Ruthie. Ruthie is a spoilt little brat; Cathy urges Joanna to ‘woo Ruthie’ when Ruthie declares that Joanna doesn’t like her…
… and Howie, armed with a little notebook, keeps strict account of whose turn it is to drive, how much they’ve spent, how their expenditures have to be divided nine ways, and other such details. He’s insufferable, Ruthie is insufferable, and Cathy is pretty much insufferable too.
There is another journey, an important one, that takes place too: a madcap adventure in which Joanna and Mark drive (or try to drive, in a very battered old car) cross-country and end up having all sorts of adventures.
—and Joanna gives Mark a momentous bit of news, which will change their lives forever, though they may not realize that at this stage: she’s pregnant. On this trip, too, they make the acquaintance of a person who will also contribute to their lives as they are today.
There are other journeys, too, of which we see briefer snippets: one, when Joanna and Mark travel again to the South of France, this time with their toddler Caroline along. Joanna is the harried mother, juggling a million tasks; Mark is hard at work, trying to make a success of the work he’s been given.
And another trip, perhaps a couple of years later, with Caroline a little older, Mark now successful—but still busy, very busy—and a Joanna who is drifting away from him.
So many trips, each a vignette (or a series of vignettes) that shows the evolving relationship between two people. From the carefree, footloose and fancy-free young couple who can’t keep their hands off each other, to the older couple who have so much fun together, to the Wallaces of now, jaded and embittered. All the trips interwoven to form a single, non-linear narrative (this was a somewhat novel experience for most audiences of the time, and is one of the reasons Two for the Road is considered a trailblazer).
What I liked about this film:
The journeys. I have a soft spot for road films, and this one is the ultimate, since it’s not really one trip but many—and there were so many incidents, little details that I could identify with. That bad decision to travel (on a long journey, too) with people you don’t really know—and who end up being nothing like you, which means you have a horrible trip. The fancy hotel you find a room in and then realize that it’s far too expensive for you to even think of eating a meal in. The car that will keep breaking down, again and again and again… there was so much here that brought back memories of trips my husband and I have taken too, with some crazy adventures along the way (most not as crazy as Joanna and Mark’s, but near enough).
And, the other journey: the journey of Mark and Joanna as a couple. From the starry-eyed, much in love young couple to an older couple, who’ve been unfaithful to each other, who have been disillusioned, who’ve fought and made up, and who still stay together, because at heart they understand each other.
The way their relationship changes comes through in the small things: for instance, in the early days, a disaster (what happens to their car) hits them pretty bad, but they are still able to see the humour in it, and laugh over their misfortunes.
On the other hand, an older Mark and Joanna, less resilient, more used to each other, less patient with each other, are sent teetering over the edge by the smallest of matters. A boiled egg, ordered but not delivered by a hotel, sends Mark into such a rage that it wrecks that particular trip.
The humour is good, but I wouldn’t, as does Wikipedia and IMDB, bill it as a comedy. The humour is there in pockets, focussed mainly around two trips—Mark and Joanna’s trip with the ghastly Manchesters, and the trip, perhaps a couple of years down the line, in that ramshackle car of theirs. There’s a good deal of situational comedy and some funny dialogue here that is pretty hilarious.
The rest of the time, though, this is really more a sadly real film about the ennui that sets in among most married couples. It’s almost tragic to see how far these two have come…
And yes, both Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn do a fine job of portraying their characters and the way their relationship changes.
What I didn’t like:
Two things, both related to the infidelities of Mark and Joanna. Firstly, there’s much made about the fact that Joanna has an affair. Yes, she does it right under Mark’s nose, so to say—and he finds out and confronts her with it, leading to a big show-down. But what about Mark? Mark too sleeps around. There’s one telling scene, for instance, where a flirtatious blonde whom he meets while driving down a highway ends up sharing a hotel room with him. It’s all done so casually that it gives the impression that this isn’t something new for Mark.
That—and the fact that it’s not explicitly stated that Joanna knows of Mark’s infidelity—seems to suggest that his being unfaithful is all right (it’s what men do, right?) but her infidelity is just not acceptable. Double standards. The feminist in me was irked, very much.
Then, the outcome of Joanna’s infidelity. It ends up nearly driving the two of them to separation, and then is forgotten far too quickly, far too easily to be convincing. The ending, which is on the surface a happy one, left me wondering: For how long?
But, on the whole, an enjoyable film. The non-linear narrative, with snippets of trips from different periods jumbled together so that it takes a while to get used to which trip happens when, works well, and the film is an entertaining one.