FILM REVIEW: I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

I Know Where I'm Going! (UK, 1945)
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Lively, Pamela Brown, Finlay Currie

Romantic drama is a hard genre to get right, both on paper and on screen. Some are so light and frothy that they leave no lasting impression; others, like The Snows of Kilimanjaro, are overblown, overwrought and in most cases over-long. I Know Where I'm Going! is a textbook example of how to do this sort of film properly, taking a relatively simple story and making it memorable through a series of strong performances, a great script and remarkable direction.One of the common criticisms laid against romantic films, whether dramatic or comedic, is that they lack substance, relying on the charm of the performers to take an audience's mind off a highly clichéd or conventional premise. But while that criticism may carry a certain weight with regard to more recent rom-coms, it can't be fairly levelled against I Know Where I'm Going!. This is not because of the film's age, or its positioning in the golden age of melodramas. It is instead because the film is subtly inventive, adding precious moments of surprise in its every twist and turn.

I Know Where I'm Going! begins with a woman setting off to marry the man of her dreams, who is rich, powerful, influential and lives in the magical land of Scotland. These early scenes, with Wendy Hiller in full-on daddy's-little-girl mode, explore the age-old desire of young girls to be princesses and ride off into the sunset with a handsome prince. The twist, however, is that Joan Webster is not your average girly princess: she is a driven, ambitious woman who has known what she has wanted all her life. The opening credits explore her childhood in the manner of a BBC newsreel, showing a series of clear turning points underscored by Home Service narration.If the character of Joan Webster were to turn up in a film today, she would most likely be characterised as having OCD or some form of neurosis. Perhaps she would have been a suitable soul-mate for Jack Nicholson at the start of As Good As It Gets. She has her entire life planned out meticulously, knowing exactly what and who she wants and how she intends to get it. Her constant desire to get to the island comes as much from her compulsive urge to be punctual as the desire to meet the man she is marrying.

For the first ten minutes the film confronts this idea in a very broad, head-on way. We see Wendy Hiller in the railway carriage pouring over her routine, behaving in a very controlled and restrained manner. But for the rest of the film Emeric Pressburger's script explores her character and surroundings much more subtly. Superficially, the story of I Know Where I'm Going! seems very predictable - put simply, there's not that many men on the island. But the film plays out economically and keeps its emotions and dialogue in check, giving us a number of pleasant surprises along the way.The film is very good at planting seeds of doubt in Webster's mind, and demonstrating her infuriation at seeing her planned perfection disrupted. These disruptions start off very small, with her oversleeping and having to carry her clothes off the train in a heap. As the weather delays her trip to Kiloran, she slowly but surely begins to adjust to the landscape, even if she doesn't find herself warming to the place until the final reel. When she finally hears her fiancée on the radio, she assumes there is something wrong with his voice and asks him if he has a cold. These little moments don't seem like much when they first play out, but as the plot unfolds their significance becomes clear.Like many of their other films, I Know Where I'm Going! sees Powell and Pressburger dabbling in fantasy and applying magic to an otherwise realistic setting. These dabbles begin on the train to Glasgow, when Webster is sleeping with her wedding dress hanging in a see-through case above her. Suddenly the dress disappears and we move into her fantasy of being married - albeit jokingly, since she is being married to her fiancée's company, thanks to her father's confusion. Later in the same scene we see the train passing through tunnels made of tartan while the narrator whispers the chorus to 'The Bonnie Banks o'Loch Lomond'.

The film draws on a number of mythical elements which give depth and credibility to the situation. These range from the Laird's story about the Viking ship which anchored in the whirlpool Corryvreckan, to the practice of counting the beams and making a wish on the first night spent in a new room. To some extent these follow in the tradition started by Sir Walter Scott and carried on in Brigadoon, since they paint a fanciful portrait of the Highlands and Outer Hebrides. But the film is not entirely a tourists'-eye-view, and is populated with enough believable supporting characters to stop things drifting too far into fantasy.Although it seems an odd comparison, the story of I Know Where I'm Going! is not all that far removed from that of The Wicker Man nearly 30 years later. Both films centre on an individual who comes to a remote Scottish community driven by a singular urge to find someone. Both Joan Webster and Sergeant Howie are outsiders in this community and cannot comprehend its way of life - although the former doesn't have to put up with pagan worship or naked dancing. The central similarity, however, is that the goal of their respective characters is essentially a McGuffin. Just as the girl in The Wicker Man never really went missing, so we never meet Lord Beringer, or get to count his money. He might as well not exist, for his only function is to bring her to the island, and the weather does the rest in managing to keep her there.The mythical elements of the film are ultimately what lift it out of being predictable fare. The stories which Torquil regales to his guests include a tale about a rope being made of virginal hair which would never break, since true love is stronger than anything. The sub-plot surrounding the curse gives his character a sense of mystery, so that we enjoy their relationship while picking our brain as to what this curse could be. One of the best scenes in the film sees Torquil and Webster arguing on the stairs about the local customs and the latter's decision to go out in a gale to get to the island. When our leads do finally get together, their entanglement with the curse makes it seem a whole lot less contrived, while raising the question of whether their love was chance intervening on fate or fate playing out in a different way than they had intended.I Know Where I'm Going! has impressive production values for a film of its time and budget. The storm scenes, where the boat flounders and drifts into a whirlpool, are impressively executed. You do feel like you are in the boat with the characters, with the spray soaking your face and the boat lurching one way and then the other. Capturing the whirlpool and the boat involved a lot of complicated editing, with multiple location long-shots being spliced together with model shots and studio shoots in which the cast were doused in buckets of icy water. All Powell's efforts pay off, creating a storm sequence which is gripping and inventive.

The performances are also of a high calibre. Wendy Hiller is on great form as Joan Webster, nailing the character in the very first scene and displaying the same formidable femininity that would serve her well in The Elephant Man. Roger Livesey is a great match for her, combining humour, humility and a deep-seated integrity (plus he looks good in a kilt). Among the supporting cast, real-life Captain C. W. R. Wright is a well-chosen Colonel Barnstaple, and Valentine Dyall turns up in a rare non-villainous performance as Mr. Robinson.I Know Where I'm Going! is a top-notch romantic drama which is understated but ambitious and whose ideas remain fresh and engaging even after 65 years. The performances are charming and convincing, and really bring Pressburger's myth-injected script to life. It isn't quite the masterpiece that Martin Scorsese had claimed it to be, since its quirkier sections are occasionally overbearing (tea with the Robinsons, for example). But it marks a definite improvement on A Canterbury Tale and the start of the prime years of Powell and Pressburger's careers.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: A properly magical love story


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