Saturday, 15 December 2012

Wild as the wind… I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

“Directed, written and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger…” for my money “The Archers” outrank any other British filmmakers in terms of their distinctive creative vision and sheer strangeness. They can comfort and unsettle all at the same time and whilst they represent a type of British-ness they also subvert it with their films containing elements of expressionism and mysticism that are distinctly European and definitely challenging. There are obvious cultural reasons for this in Pressberger’s case but Powell, from Kent, had spent time at his father's hotel in Nice and gained experience in German film studios in the silent era.

The consequences of their eclecticism are films that weave together contradictory elements and which contain elusive messaging… all of which is dealt with in an even-handed way found even in their propaganda films. They have strong male characters, played by Farrar, Niven and Livesy, who don’t always behave like gentlemen: they act on instinct and are free-thinkers not slavishly bound to strictures of culture or class. So it is with I Know Where I’m Going but here it’s the female lead who is revolting out of type.

Wendy Hiller
Released post-war in late 1945, this film offers the re-assurance of enduring love and community spirit after the battles won…and offers a Celtic companion to the previous year’s ethereally English A Canterbury Tale.

I Know Where I’m Going returns Powell to his beloved Scotland and to the highlands and islands previously showcased in The Edge of the World (1937). This time the location is Mull, and the distant shores of “Kiloran” (a fictional isle roughly in the position of Colonsay). All are beautifully photographed by Erwin Hillier - all darkness and light with some stunning expressionist shots of mountains, shore and sky.  These are perfectly matched by expertly constructed interiors in Denham Studios: 500 miles away they feel part of the location as surely as if they’d been built there.

Wendy Hiller is excellent as Joan Webster, a bank manager’s daughter from Manchester who – seemingly – knows exactly where she’s going and always has done. The film opens with a series of witty scenes showing the heroin’s steadfast pursuit of what she wants at different stages of childhood and presenting the credits on various bits of the scenery.

Consolidated Chemical Industries
This helps to accentuate the material world in which Joan lives and, shortly after we see her leaving an art-deco industrial building she informs her father that she’s off to Scotland to marry Consolidated Chemical Industries or at least the factory’s owner Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest men in England (note the country).

Joan is pretty sure of herself and waves good bye as her train heads north for her inevitable wedding. If she has doubts we only see them as the off-kilter dreams she experiences as she heads towards the border. However, things start to go awry as dense fog will not permit the final leg of her journey to the island Bellinger has let and upon which they are to be married.

Roger Livesey
The mood is Archers’ other-worldly with the misty magnificence of the exterior landscape mixing with some wonderful characters. The Gaelic community endure the English wartime invasion with a pragmatic shrug and a knowing smile. There’s a well-to-do family with a chatterbox wife always desperate to play bridge and who’s daughter (Petula Clark) seems more mature than the adults. They contrast with wise old matriarch Mrs. Crozier (Nancy Price) who waxes lyrical about the dances… Scottish passion versus English artifice... But the English can go native and throw themselves into the area as eccentric Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight) proves in his vain attempts to train an eagle as a kestrel.

Pamela Brown
He rooms with Mrs Crozier – Pamela Brown as wild and free as the wind… prefiguring Jennifer Jones in Gone toEarth perhaps? She’s ahead of Wendy in actually feeling where she’s going and not rationalising… “there are more important things than money…” she tells the younger woman. She is a force of nature and the younger woman is transfixed when she appears: Hiller’s reaction shot is superb and you can sense the rest of the story panning out in those few seconds.

Subtext... what subtext?!
By this stage, Joan has met Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey who acts with relaxed yet complete conviction as always), a naval officer on shore leave who, she later learns, is the Laird of Kiloran and is the one letting the land to her fiancé. There’s an instant frisson between the two… and one suspects that Joan hasn’t really taken enough books out of the Library…

There’s also something unspoken between Torquil and Mrs Crozier… an understanding certainly but maybe more:  they’re rooted in their culture, location and earthy self-recognition. It’s most un-English but that’s exactly why Eric and Emeric loved the Scots! Then again, there’s seemingly not a lot of Manchester in Joan but that said Hiller’s Stockport accent slips out in the nightclub scene when asking for a “sherr-ay” and a “doo-bonnay”… the Lassie’s from Lancashire alright.

Joan wishes for a wind to blow her way clear to Kiloran but she summons a storm which leaves her stranded with Torquvil’s increasingly intimate company. Something’s afoot and as Torquil’s explains his family’s curse as they walk past Moy Castle, the depth of the link between land and folklore becomes clear: “My father never entered Moy Castle, nor did my grandfather or his father, and nor will I.”

The two stay in a hotel but Joan insists on sitting at separate tables…not just for appearances sake but her own. But, the barriers crumble further as they attend a céilidh in honour of a local couples 60th anniversary. Here, superbly marshalled by John Laurie – fine actor and student of Gaelic folk -  the music and the dance is frenetic and the emotions charged…
John Laurie leads the dance
Couples old and young whirl around the floor, their individual dramas played out as Joan watches from a step ladder with Torquil pushed gently against her legs. He translates the lyrics of the song and emphasis the last line as he turns to look directly into Joan’s eyes ‘Ho ro, my nut-brown maiden…You're the maid for me.’

The two are dragged into the dance and lose themselves in the crowd and the music.

By now Joan is desperate to get to Kiloran and, in spite of the dangers, pays one of the locals over the odds to take her there. It’s potentially suicide but Torquil fails to argue her round. Only when Catriona points out that he is the reason she’s leaving – Joan is running away from him – does Torquil take action. He leaps into the boat and just about manages to save them from being sucked into the Corryvreckan whirlpool in seasick scenes superbly intercut between the studio and exterior shots.

They return to the mainland and, even though a line has been crossed, Joan is still intent on completing her journey as the weather finally clears… and you really should watch the film if you want to find out what happens next.

It is not surprising that I Know Where I’m Going is the kind of film that people become strongly attached. It’s a love story but one that avoids cliché with it’s unpredictability and spirited call to know thyself and to always be prepared to be blown off-course. Love is facilitated by chance and by the right time and the right place… away from industrialised routines, Joan is able, finally, to “know” where she has to go. It’s a call to take the chance and be open-minded as the dance doesn’t go on forever.

A theme Powell and Pressberger were to explore again in their next film, A Matter of Life and Death

I watched the Classic Collection DVD but there's also a Criterion Edition out there which I'm finding it hard to resist.


  1. ... One of my favorite movies!
    Season's Greetings,

    1. It's great isn't it - one to watch again and again!

      Have a great Christmas!


  2. Merry Chistmas, Paul and good 2013 full of great movies.


    1. Gracias Roy - tener una gran Navidad y feliz viendo película en 2013!