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Saturday Night Cinema: I Know Where I’m Going

4

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is one that has not, until now, been available online. Eureka! It is one of the great, great films by the peerless the producer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. I Know Where I’m Going is a most eloquent tribute to the mysteries of the British landscape. Starring a plucky Wendy Hiller, it’s the story headstrong young girl who travels to Scotland to marry a wealthy but much older man, only to be confused and distracted by the presence of dashing young laird Livesey. Lyrically shot in monochrome by Erwin Hillier, it’s all quite beautiful, combining romance, comedy, suspense and a sense of the supernatural to winning effect.

This evening’s movie was made and set in the closing months of the Second World War. A whimsical tale from the magical Western Isles of Scotland. The story of an avaricious young woman who knows what she wants, knows how to get it and knows where she is going – or does she?

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a middle class girl from Manchester, is betrothed to one of the wealthiest industrialists in the country. She sports a magnificent diamond ring delivered by Cartier and frequents the swankiest dining room in town. The modern day audience must recall, that her penchant for the good life is set against the harsh austerity and strict rationing of wartime Britain. After telling her anxious father of her forthcoming nuptials, she settles in to a private cabin on the overnight sleeper train to Scotland – at a time when ordinary folk would have been packed like sardines on any rail trip.

Joan’s journey is to the private isle of Kiloran, for her intended is Laird of the Island and that is where she will marry – all that remains is a short boat trip from the lonely pier at Erraig and she is determined nothing will get in her way.

A winner all the way, I Know Where I’m Going is full of large and small delights, including a wonderful sense of regional detail and endearing, three-dimensional characters. The film is easily one of the best of the Powell and Pressburger films of the 1940s, and arguably the team’s all-time best romantic drama.

“One of the greatest (and sadly most forgotten) romantic comedies ever…”

The Guardian:

I’ve just returned from the Isle of Mull in Scotland. It was a holiday which quickly assumed the character of a secular pilgrimage to the key locations in the 1945 Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going!, a sublime and utterly distinctive romantic comedy, set towards the end of the second world war.

It stars Wendy Hiller as the headstrong, self-possessed and rather conceited young Englishwoman, Joan Webster, who travels to the Hebrides to marry a wealthy industrialist on the remote island of Kiloran. Foul weather strands her on the neighbouring island of Mull the night before their wedding – the first time in her life anything or anyone has ever interfered with her plans. Yet, little by little, she finds herself beguiled by the island and the islanders – in particular Torquil MacNeil, a young naval officer who also happens to be the rightful Laird of Kiloran, a title he wears modestly but proudly. He is played with delicacy and forthright charm by Roger Livesey.


Before I left, the film writer and documentary maker Mark Cousins – who has a passionate love of both this movie and Mull itself – lent me his Ordnance Survey maps which marked the key spots, including the Carsaig pier from which Joan wistfully looks out towards a distant Kiloran (this island is a fictional spot on the site of the genuine Colonsay). It also marks the telephone box which is sited, absurdly, on a steep hill near a rushing waterfall rendering all phone conversations all but inaudible. Pretty overexcited, I tweeted a picture of myself in this legendary spot.

Mull is beautful, and its richness and calm, together with the extraordinary majesty of its landscape, are well represented in Powell and Pressburger’s film. It would be perverse not to recognise its gentleness and overwhelming charm, but somehow watching it on DVD in the restful context of Mull had an interesting effect on my reading of the film: it brought out its darker, more subversive, more peppery side.

It really is quite odd that Joan repeatedly calls her father “darling”, and chooses to reveal to him that she is getting married to Sir Robert Bellinger, a man roughly her father’s age, not at their home, but at a somewhat racy, noisy nightclub. It’s the sort of place where attractive young women might well meet their sugar daddy boyfriends. Her father is understandably bemused to be told that she is leaving Manchester for Scotland that very night on a sleeper, a rare luxury which Sir Robert’s connections have secured for her.

As she is settling in to her compartment there is a moment which I used the freeze frame to savour. The camera pans along the carriage from the outside and we glimpse the young couple next door to Joan. You see them for no more than a moment. Their intimacy is fascinating. They could of course be a bored married couple, but they look loved up to me. It is a brilliant, subliminal flash of erotic adventure.

Of course it is clear that these faintly unwholesome overtones of older-man infatuations and the electra complex are supposed to be part of the shallow townie world which Joan will, undeniably, abandon in favour of real values in Mull. But there are dark notes here as well.

On the first night of being marooned on the island, both Torquil and Joan find themselves having to stay in a house in Carsaig, owned by a childhood friend of Torquil – Catriona, played by Pamela Brown. With a certain type of Scottish patrician breeziness, together with almost sensually wild unconvention, Catriona welcomes them. Torquil casually reveals that she is a childhood friend, that her husband is away in the Middle East and that her children are at boarding school. Obviously, there is a spark between Torquil and Catriona. Were they childhood sweethearts? Adult lovers? Catriona instantly appreciates the growing, illicit bond between Torquil and Joan, but something in it does not entirely please her. That arched eyebrowed look of shrewd scepticism and scorn has a glint of something unhappy, jealous or even dangerous in it. When Joan conceives her crazily dangerous plan of sailing across to Kiloran in stormy weather, Catriona looks almost contemptuous, even cruel. She savours Joan’s desperation to get away, to avoid the truth about her feelings for Torquil, and to imprison herself in a boring but wealthy marriage.

Watching I Know Where I’m Going! in Mull, I realised who it was that Pamela Brown’s Catriona resembles: Kathleen Byron’s Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. Ruth is obsessed with what she imagines to be Sister Clodagh’s love for Mr Dean; on a much gentler, saner level, Catriona has the same approach to Joan and Torquil. The difference is of course that Catriona is not deluded, she is fundamentally lucid and she is someone who wishes them both well. She is Dr Jekyll to Sister Ruth’s Mr Hyde. But there is something similar: a tiny flash of jealousy and frustration. She provides a tang and savour of sex in the movie. It isn’t too far-fetched to wonder if she is still in love with Torquil, and even if she entertained hopes of what might happen when he was here on leave, with her husband and children away. In which case there is something selfless and noble in her taking it upon herself to make it clear to Torquil (the silly chump) that Joan is trying to leave Mull because she loves him. Another type of film might have experimented with developing Torquil and Catriona’s complex backstory – and even made Catriona the villain of the piece.

It’s such a great movie: if you’re watching it again on DVD, don’t forget to freeze-frame that sleeper-compartment scene.

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