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Powell and Pressburger: A Celtic storm brewing | reviews, news & interviews

Powell and Pressburger: A Celtic storm brewing

Powell and Pressburger: A Celtic storm brewing

The Archers stepped up their wartime campaign against materialism with the mystical Scottish romance 'I Know Where I'm Going!'

Love finds a way: Joan (Wendy Hiller) and Torquil (Roger Livesey)BFI

“Nothing is stronger than true love,” a young laird says to a headstrong young woman in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), his voice heard above the sounds of wind and waves. She replies, “No, nothing.”

Even as they are in danger of drowning in the same way, he is recounting a legend in which a prince is doomed to death in the whirlpool Corryvreckan. Mystical forces are woven through the film, and all conspire to help love conquer materialism.

Powell and Pressburger began work on I Know Where I’m Going! after they postponed making A Matter of Life and Death (1946). That film was to combine earthbound scenes in color with heavenly sequences in black-and-white, and the duo had learned that Technicolor, which was being used in the war effort, would not become available again for a while longer.

As they cast around for a new story, Pressburger suggested an idea about a girl who wants to go to an island but is prevented from reaching it by a storm and changes her mind while waiting. They selected the Hebrides for its setting. Powell wrote in his first memoir, A Life in Movies, that Pressburger’s tale “stood up nobly to all the local colour and huge production that I heaped onto its slender framework.” (Pictured above: Wendy Hiller, George Carney)

Cast as the proper and goal-oriented heroine, Joan Webster, Wendy Hiller brings to the role an eager, long-limbed grace, a lively intelligence, and what Powell wonderfully described in A Life in Movies as her “impudent face.” In a film full of wind, rain, and fog, Joan can be her own formidable climate, shifting from warm enthusiasm to stubborn recklessness and cool determination, but Hiller always suggests the possibility of solid ground deeper within, if only Joan can find it.

From a humorous opening montage showing Joan at various ages – crawling energetically at one, writing to Father Christmas for silk stockings at five, hitching a ride with a milkman at 12, convincing a beau to take her to a hotel restaurant instead of the movies as an 18-year-old working girl – she is easy to like, despite her shallow ambitions.

As the story begins, she is a 25-year-old meeting her father (George Carney) at a chic Manchester restaurant, where she springs the news that she’s about to marry the older and wealthy Sir Robert Bellinger (voice of Norman Shelley) of Consolidated Chemical Industries on the (fictitious) Isle of Kiloran. When she shows him her dazzling ring and puts on airs, her father reminds her she’s not Lady Bellinger yet, and she laughs good-naturedly. (Pictured above: Pamela Brown)

Sir Robert’s employees have planned every detail of her journey, beginning with an overnight train. In her cabin she hangs up an elegant wedding dress that many a wartime bride would envy. Her fiancé’s descriptions of the Hebrides have fired her imagination, but feverish images and sounds haunt her sleep. She dreams of wearing the gown as her father pronounces her married to Consolidated Chemical Industries, of ghostly chatter about money, and of a train wending its way through tartan-patterned hills.

When she arrives at the port on the Isle of Mull where she is to be fetched by boat to Kiloran, the otherworldly and majestic setting, exquisitely photographed by Erwin Hillier, is as unlike the crude tartan dream landscape as it could be – with breathtaking views of gleaming water, dramatic skies, and mountains wreathed in mist. Powell wrote in A Life in Movies about Hillier’s preoccupation with filming clouds; in some shots in I Know Where I’m Going! the shadowy clouds and soft radiance are as mystical as in paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder.

The sound of seals singing heightens the sense of enchantment. A young naval officer (Roger Livesey), who also hoped to reach Kiloran, tells Joan the fog is too heavy and suggests that she wait in a house overlooking the bay. The boatman Ruairidh Mhór (Finlay Currie) refuses to take her across. Joan sits by the shore and looks at her itinerary, but the wind plucks it from her hands and throws it out to sea. She makes her way to the house, where she is welcomed by an eccentric falconer, Colonel Barnstaple (CWR Knight), and again meets the naval officer, Torquil MacNeil.

Torquil is a longtime friend of the house’s spirited owner Catriona (Pamela Brown), who soon returns from hunting for dinner with her Irish wolfhounds. Joan had told her father that she would be heading where “the war’s a million miles away.” Evidence to the contrary includes damage to Catriona’s home from having housed 80 members of the RAF for two years. Torquil is back for only an eight-day leave after four years away. I Know Where I’m Going! doesn’t include bombsites as did Powell and Pressburger's previous film, A Canterbury Tale (1944), but just as the sea can take lives of those who live on the islands, so can the war. (Pictured above: Roger Livesey, Pamela Brown, Wendy Hiller, CWR Knight)

I Know Where I'm Going! does have a crumbling castle tied to an ancient curse on the lairds of Kiloran, and Torquil will reveal to Joan that he is one of them when they pass it on the way to Tobermory. But first they spend a night in Catriona’s house, where he startles Joan by appearing at his window as she opens hers, and their hands touch in the misty darkness as she passes him a light. He suggests that she count the beams in her room and make a wish, so before she sleeps she does, praying for the wind to blow the fog away. The next day there is a gale warning. When she says it looks so near they could reach it in half an hour, Ruairidh replies, “In less than a second you could get from this world into the next.”

Despite Joan’s stubbornness, city-bred propriety, and interest in financial security, Torquil’s attraction to her is understandable. She is affectionate with Catriona’s dogs, unfazed by the Colonel’s birds, and boldly unafraid of wind and fog and rain. When she speaks to Sir Robert by radio from Tobermory, he calls her “my pet” and casually disparages the local residents, as she struggles to maintain a cheerful dignity in front of the listening Torquil. She is clearly worthy of being more than a rich man’s pet.

Friends of Sir Robert who have rented a castle on Mull offer a glimpse of the dull life in store for her, but a cèilidh Torquil escorts her to – featuring rousing song and dance and pipers that were hired to play at her wedding – paints a vivid picture of another possible future. The elderly gardener and his wife whose diamond anniversary is being celebrated are a striking, even daunting, example of constancy. (Pictured above: Roger Livesey, Wendy Hiller)

Ruairidh’s daughter, Bridie (Margot Fitzsimons), and a young man who can’t afford to marry her, Kenny (Murdo Morrison), are another touching couple. After Joan, increasingly desperate, callously bribes Kenny to take her to Kiloran, Bridie waits by the water, her poignant figure recalling all those who hope for loved ones to return home.

The whirlpool in I Know Where I’m Going! was partly inspired by a story Powell loved, Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelström,” about a man who survives a massive watery vortex. A long, harrowing sequence in which Joan, Torquil, and Kenny face a similarly awesome force was created from actual whirlpool footage Powell and others filmed off Mull, material shot in a tank at Denham Studios, and the actors battling wind and water in a rocking boat before a back projection screen.

The film’s title, which was suggested by Frankie Reidy, Powell’s second wife, is taken from a ballad in which a woman sings of a true love for which she would give up her silk stockings, her green leather shoes, her rings, and other fine things. Joan’s wedding dress is stolen by the sea, but she still has to choose whether to trade empty luxuries for kindness, passionate love, rich cultural traditions, and wild natural beauty. (Pictured above: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey)

Powell recalled in A Life in Movies that while they were working on I Know Where I’m Going!, he said to Pressburger, “‘We have been at war so long, that we are beginning to forget fundamental truths. It is time they were restated.'’’ He wrote, "Then Emeric said in his wise, gentle voice: ‘Kindness rules the world. Not money.’”

I Know Where I’m Going! doesn’t judge its heroine for having been focused on comfort and security. She is only human. But through combining ancient magic with cold reality, it finds a reason to march toward the future. In the end, Joan proves to be so fierce and true she would be worthy of her own ballad.

Comments

It also includes a cameo appearance by a very young Petula Clark.

Love, love, love this movie.  It opened the world of The Archers for me.  I'd marry Roger Livesey in a heartbeat.

Thoughtfully wonderful piece on a brilliant movie.

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