As my recent immersion in the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger continues, I finally got around to seeing I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), thanks in part to the extreme indulgence of my local public library, which has not yet set the collection agencies on me for having the disc now for over a month. Each new Powell/Pressburger experience makes me want to immediately cement the movie in question permanently in my top 100—it has been so for my first encounters with A Canterbury Tale, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and even, Laurence Olivier’s out-rrrrageous French-Canadian accent notwithstanding, 49th Parallel. And now so it is with I Know Where I’m Going!, a film of such magic and romanticism and humor and feel for the texture of life on the Scottish isles that even Local Hero, upon which it surely was an influence, must finally take a small step to the side in my heart. (Up next: Black Narcissus.)
Young Joan Tucker (played with a lilting mixture of wistful longing and cheerful entitlement by Wendy Hiller) has always known what she’s wanted in life, and we meet her as she sets off on to fulfill yet another ambition—to be married to a rich industrialist on in a remote island castle off the Scottish coast. Arriving in a seaside town where the island of Kiloran, her destination, is close enough to be glimpsed through the coastal evening fog, she ends up stranded because of inclement weather and forced to wait out the time until she can make the journey across the water in the company of the British naval officer (played with his customary lightness and unwavering charm by Roger Livesey) on whose property her wedding is to take place. As each day passes, and the strange beauty of the Scottish countryside, its abandoned castles hiding legends and curses within their walls, continues to cast its spell, Joan must face the realization that for the first time she may not have a strong notion of where she intends life to take her. She becomes swept up, helpless, like a boat in a dangerous squall, cast about toward a destiny that may hold love and its attendant magic in a completely unexpected place.
The Powell and Pressburger touch is feather-light here, which may lead some to feel the movie hasn’t the gravity of Blimp, or as successful an engagement with the curious mysticism of the folktale as did Canterbury. I Know Where I’m Going! was shot on the Isle of Mull, and yet given the natural opportunity to exploit the surrounding beauty of the location, the movie never so much as threatens to succumb to the vagaries of the picture-postcard tourist travelogue. Instead, Powell and Pressburger infuse it with a gorgeous unaffected beauty through their sensitivity to the ethnographic beauty and mystery of the setting. The film becomes a transcendent mystery of local color and romantic longing powered by directorial details so slight as to seem inconsequential, yet so cumulatively powerful as to be undeniable. At one point as Joan lies on her bed, prayerfully begging God to cease the gale that prevents her from making the trip to Kiloran, she reflects on a local woman’s advice to count the beams on her bedroom ceiling so as to ensure a positive answer to her petition. As she looks up, Powell and Pressburger give us a beautiful pattern of lamplight cast on the ceiling as if to suggest the parting of the clouds and the coming of the sun, and then just a beat longer to realize that the ceiling has no beams. And once Joan, in the company of that naval officer and a young local boy, finally does set out for Kiloran, the directors evoke the terrifying immediacy of the ill-advised journey by amplifying its disorienting possibilities within hoary and well-familiar rear-projection techniques to spectacular, nauseating effect.
A great romance that helped to create the sturdy template that modern movies have repeatedly bastardized and trivialized, I Know Where I’m Going! has, 63 years after its release, the capacity to thrill a modern audience jaded by overexposure to the likes of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConnaughey. Hiller and Livesey (fast emerging as one of my favorite screen presences, despite his superficial resemblance to Craig Kilborn) bring blithe good humor and layers of meaning to the simplest gestures-- like the exchange of a cigarette or a glance across a crowded dinner table-- that would likely drive most actors into fits of envy. And directors Powell and Pressburger create for them a landscape charged with historical and emotional resonance that is fully worthy to frame and reflect the earthbound, yet splendidly flushed power of their story.