“I reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover, until I saw I Know Where I’m Going!” – Martin Scorsese
A couple of years ago, I went up to Mull for a holiday – I say holiday but it involved 16 of us in a rented house and culminated in two nights of carnage at the Argyllshire Gathering and Northern Meeting…
Although Mull is worth a visit in its own right, it held a special attraction for me as the location of my favourite film – I Know Where I’m Going!
Mention British film to the average man in the street and you’ll get, depending on your respondent, reference to the “kitchen sink” films of Lindsay Anderson, all grim back streets and domestic violence; the Carry On school of tired jokes and more tired actors; or The Full Monty. Occasionally, you’ll strike gold – and someone will mention Powell and Pressburger, Britain’s answer to, well, nobody really. Nothing in Hollywood has ever touched them for inventiveness, storytelling, or the sheer artistry of filmmaking.
Reaching a critical peak towards the end of World War Two with The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, they also found time to knock out more routine propaganda fare like The Way Ahead. But it was I Know Where I’m Going!, made as a black and white quickie while they awaited the colour film stock to produce Life and Death, that deserves to stand as their masterpiece.
The plot is slight enough – Joan Hunter (Wendy Hiller), is a young woman determined to get on in life, travelling to the remote island of Kiloran to marry rich industrialist Sir Robert Bellinger at the end of the war. Bellinger is at least twice her age, but he can give her the money and status this middle class daughter of a bank manager desires more than anything else. Stormbound on Mull, she falls under the spell of Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey, possibly the only credible romantic lead in the history of the world to be called Torquil), and is forced to confront what it is that she really wants from life.
Roger Livesey was something of a mainstay of P&P’s films, both as a supporting actor and lead (most notably as the title character in Colonel Blimp), but he was never better in his career than as the cash strapped laird, on leave from Navy, and trying to get home through the storm to his island. Wendy Hiller is a little more grating at first, but soon becomes utterly believable as a spoilt young woman slowly coming to life more than she ever imagined possible.
As usual with P&P, an entire thesis could be written on their use of inventive camera work to convey the dream like world of the Scottish Highlands – from the steam emerging from the stationmaster’s hat at Buchanan Street station, through to the bizarre sequence where she is married off to the factory hooter at Consolidated Chemical Industries by her father who is dressed as a vicar.
But the real power and artifice is in what they don’t show – Bellinger is never anything more than a voice at the end of a telephone, whilst one of the most spell-binding moments comes with Miss Crozier’s description of the Argyllshire Gathering; a lesser filmmaker would have put in some trite sub-Brigadoon ceilidh scene, whereas here it’s all in the description and the way first Crozier’s eyes come alive as she describes the clothes and music, and then Joan’s expression changes in reaction.
Before we leave the subject of eyes, in a film which trades largely on reaction and heightened emotion, one of the most powerful and unsettling pieces of British cinema is surely the end of Livesey’s recitation of Nut Brown Maiden halfway up a step ladder at the Campbell’s diamond wedding(!), where he fixes Hiller with an absolute gaze of steel and says “You’re the Maid for Me.”
The real star of the film is of course Scotland, and P&P write an absolute hymn to a now vanished way of life. The cinematography is superlative (without even going into the fact that Livesay never left Buckinghamshire throughout the shoot - contractual obligations meant he couldn’t travel to Scotland so all his outdoor scenes feature body doubles interspersed with close ups of his face!). From the first meeting with Torquil’s old childhood friend Catriona, silhouetted against the dusk skyline with her baying hounds, to the famous scene at the Corryvreckan whirlpool, this film takes you to the highlands in the 1940s and does its best to leave you there. Although I’ve always resisted the temptation, it would be perfectly possible to get to the end and just start watching it all over again.
As Raymond Chandler said,
“I’ve never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way, nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialised as a show place.”