Monday, August 27, 2012

I Know Where I'm Going!

Moving, romantic, and utterly magical, I Know Where I'm Going! is one of the great collaborations of the Archers, writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This is a delightful romance of the Scottish isles, totally charming and sweet, shot with an eye for the natural poetry of the land, the beauty of sea and sky even in their darkest, most threatening moments. This charming love story concerns the determined, materialistic Joan (Wendy Hiller), who knows precisely where she's going in life. As the opening credits whimsically show, she's wanted things ever since she was a baby, and she's always gotten them eventually, thirsting for silk stockings and fine dinners. She has plans for her life, and she's about to fulfill them by marrying the wealthy industrial magnate Bellinger. She's traveling to the Scottish island of Killoran for her wedding, but when a bad storm strands her for several days on the nearby island of Mull, she begins falling in love with Torquil (Roger Livesey), a local lord who's rich in titles but poor in cash, something that is decidedly not in her plans.

There are signs even before this that Joan isn't necessarily as happy as she pretends to be with her well-planned life and her cunningly ambitious impending marriage. On a train journey, as she sleeps, Powell and Pressburger project her dreams onto the plastic wrapping of her wedding dress, hanging nearby, with the crinkly plastic overlaying her dream images, as though she's surrounded in it, trapped by it, about to be preserved or suffocated in plastic. Voices chattering about her wedding and the plans surrounding it are synced up with the chugga-chugga rhythm of the train's wheels, a manic clatter of voices that seem to be mocking her with their talk of schedules planned down to the minute. She's haunted by the rigidly planned life she has ahead of her, everything planned out, everything safe and scheduled, a life seemingly dedicated only to getting the wealth and prestige she'd always thought she'd wanted. Later, when she's getting off the train, Powell and Pressburger mock the stuffed-shirt assistants who greet her by segueing from one man's top hat to a shot of a train's smokestack, so that the smoke briefly seems to be erupting from the top of the man's head. Even before the storm delays her, Joan seems to be having second thoughts, she's just too stubborn to ever admit it.

When Joan arrives at the island of Mull, a gorgeous, moody atmosphere settles over the film, with voices calling through the fog, and men silhouetted on the rocky shore, set off against the tumultuous waves of the sea. None of Joan's stubbornness and determination can overcome the weather, and though she insists on standing by the water waiting for a boat that, it's obvious, is not coming, she can't will the wind to stop blowing or the sea to calm. She might know where she's going, but she's finally confronted something she can't control; the winds and waves are as stubborn as she is. And then she meets Torquil, with whom she immediately forms a warm and obvious bond, even though her standoffish instincts keep trying to reassert themselves. Even if Joan herself thinks she knows where she's going, the audience knows she'll be going somewhere else altogether. The pleasure lies in the grace and beauty with which Powell and Pressburger document this blossoming love, juxtaposing it with the majestic rural expanses of the Scottish islands and the foreboding splendor of the overcast weather.

The film powerfully captures the feel of Scottish culture, steeped in the Gaelic language, with its mysterious sounds and cadences, so like music. One of the film's loveliest scenes is the anniversary celebration that Torquil and Joan attend, leaving behind the stuffy society bridge game of Bellinger's friends to listen to music and watch the dancing of the servants. The floor shakes, and the bagpipers play, and the dancers couple off and swap partners, laughing and drinking and have a great time, such a far cry from the lame tea party upstairs, where one woman kept interrupting any potentially interesting conversation with questions about when they were going to play bridge. The film continually contrasts the folksy ways of the island dwellers against the high society manners of the crowd that Joan is soon going to be marrying into. The people of the island, Torquil says, are "not poor, they just haven't got any money," which he insists isn't the same thing, though Joan doesn't see it — what Torquil means, of course, is that they just don't need any money.

When Joan first arrives on the island, her buttoned-up manners and assiduous politeness are contrasted against the local woman Catriona (Pamela Brown), who makes a grand entrance preceded by her wet, shaggy, exuberant dogs — contrasted later against the sedate true-breeds of the rich folk — with the woman herself bounding into the room with the same enthusiasm, her hair wet, her eyes fiery and a broad grin on her face as she embraces her old friend Torquil and exclaims her welcome in Gaelic. Catriona is so different from the prim and proper Joan; when Joan says that she and Torquil should eat lunch at separate tables, he says that she's the most proper girl he ever met, which she decides to take as a compliment even though there's more than a note of irony in his tone.

The film deals broadly with the theme of rural decency versus elite sophistication, with Joan's stubbornness set off against the locals' familiarity with nature and connection to the earth and the sea, and against the local legends that add mystery and myth and a sense of history to their lives. In contrast, Joan's prospective husband tells her over a radio that only one family in the area is worth knowing: a family of elitist snobs just like him, of course. He's not interested in communing with nature or learning about local history, and Joan is ultimately seduced as much by the land, the people, the culture, as she is by Torquil himself.


DavidEhrenstein said...

A very great film entirely about atmosphere.

Peter Swanson said...

I watch this film at least once a year and it never fails to restore something in me. Beautiful movie.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, David and Peter. It's a gorgeous and inspiring movie, with an atmosphere like no other.

wordylilchacha said...

the title itself is already interesting. I have to watch this one, i think it will inspire me greatly.

thanks for your compelling review.