Silver Screen Standards: I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
Like Joan, the heroine of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 gem, I Know Where I’m Going!, I thought I knew where I was going as a young woman, but fate altered the course of my journey. My empathy with Wendy Hiller as the ambitious, pragmatic Joan only partly accounts for my deep affection for this charming wartime romance. It’s not a tame fairy tale, with its rough weather and hardscrabble Hebridean islanders, but it exists in the mythic atmosphere of cursed castles, legendary whirlpools, and sublime Romantic scenery. Against this backdrop, the writer/director team unfolds a story of two people whom destiny seems determined to throw together, despite the heroine’s best efforts to stick with her original plan.
Hiller plays Joan Webster, a middle-class English woman who aspires to better things and has the chance to get them by marrying the much older owner of a large company. Her groom wants to have their wedding on the remote Scottish island of Kiloran, which he rents from its laird, so Joan sets off from England to the rugged Hebrides with her wedding dress and a detailed itinerary. The infamous Scottish weather stops her progress at Mull, where she can see the island over the water but can’t cross due to the dangerous winds. Conditions on the shore also grow dangerous as Joan develops a friendship with Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), the poor but handsome laird of Kiloran currently home on a week’s leave from the Navy.
The movie is packed with wonderful characters and performances all the way down the line. Hiller and Livesey – both rather mature for the characters they play – have marvelous chemistry in spite of their grown-up, sober manners. Livesey exudes a particular romantic appeal as the modest but competent Torquil; the more storm-tossed he gets the handsomer he looks, which makes the climactic scene in the boat all the more thrilling, and he cuts quite a figure in his kilt. The determined heroine who gets tripped up by unexpected love is a staple of romantic comedy, but the narration and framing of the story treat Joan with a wry humor that laughs at her while still making us sympathize with her. The two leads enjoy ample support from C.W.R. Knight as Colonel Barnstaple, Finlay Currie as the local boatman, and Margot Fitzsimons (sister of Maureen O’Hara) as young Bridie, but the scene-stealer of the lot is Pamela Brown as the magnificent Catriona Potts. Every time she enters a scene I am absolutely bewitched by her wind-blown locks and stalwart nature, and if she weren’t already conveniently married I’d have trouble rooting for Joan to hook Torquil. Even the smallest roles are memorably played, especially the female characters; veteran stage star Nancy Price makes a brief but powerful appearance as Mrs. Crozier, and young Petula Clark leaves me wishing she had more scenes as the bookish but observant Cheril.
A good romantic story would be enough for a lot of movies, but this picture is also a great film. It makes the most of every tool at its disposal to create a rich narrative of sights, sounds, and symbols. Erwin Hillier (credited as “Hiller”) provides breathtaking cinematography that might inspire you to take off for Scotland yourself, and the lively music will stay in your mind long after the last scene ends. Powell and Pressburger weave mythic imagery through the rather mundane tale of two people drawn into romance. The whirlpool itself is an apt metaphor for the experience of being pulled in by the force of passion, but the legend of the whirlpool and that of the cursed castle also provide pointed commentary on the perils of love. The rewards, however, can be seen at the 60th anniversary party of the elderly Campbells, whose long and happy union the community joins to celebrate with song and dance. Ending as it does, the movie leaves us wondering which outcome Joan and Torquil will face; we understand that the war beckons back in the modern world, and the laird must soon return to the fray, but the uncertainty of that conclusion perfectly fits the moment in which the film was made.
Most classic movie fans already know and admire the work of Powell and Pressburger, and I Know Where I’m Going! is one of their best-known collaborations along with Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). Roger Livesey also stars in Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, while Wendy Hiller is best remembered for her Oscar-nominated role as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938). For those who yearn to see the wilds of Scotland but can’t manage the trip in person, this movie makes a fine starting point for a cinematic celebration of the region. I’d pair it with other classics like The 39 Steps (1935) or Brigadoon (1954) and make a Burns Night party of it on a cold January evening.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.