Wednesday, May 16, 2012

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

Wendy Hiller. The amazing Wendy Hiller. One of the greatest actresses of all time-- Wendy Hiller. She only appeared in a handful of films due to her preference for stage work. Even though  she produced a small body of work, what a remarkable collection it is. I’ve seen a handful of films recently that she appeared in. What is so consistent with her, is her ability to project a certain inner confidence and determination. Her work holds up terrifically well today and I think her approach stripped away any tendency to delegate her emotional response to any male characters. It’s always an internal motivation to project “the self”, the independent spirit that carries her purpose. She doesn’t need anyone to feed off of, but rather is so strikingly original that she carries the lifeblood of any film on her shoulders, whether it be Major Barbara (1941), or Pygmalion (1938), or perhaps her greatest work on display in this film, Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!.

Powell and Pressburger made one of their most unassuming and romantic works, in this film, which not only is a meditation on fate, but also an examination of spontaneity and the spark of chance and how these two- fate and chance- play a role in our lives. We’re introduced to Joan during the opening credits. This opening credit sequence is a brilliant cinematic subversion---covering several years in between carefully placed credit titles.  We’re told how Joan always has known what she wanted and where she wanted to go from a young child through her young adulthood. Joan meets her father for a drink and dinner where she tells him she is about to be married to one of the wealthiest men in the UK, someone whom she hasn’t even met. She is soon to board a sequence of trains and cars and boats which will take her to the Isle of Kiloran in the Scottish Hebrides where she will marry the wealthy Sir Robert Bellinger. She has almost reached her final destination, when a series of bad weather events (fog, wind) prevent her from taking the final ferry boat she must take to get there. So she must remain on the Isle of Mull in the meantime. While there, she and another man, Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesy) who is also trying to get to the Isle of Kiloran, begin to be drawn to each other. The longer she must wait out the weather, the more she spends time with Torquil, throwing off all of her plans.

Back in November of last year I spent 3 weeks in the UK for work, during which time I had the great opportunity to spend about 5 days traveling around Scotland. My friend and I were driving from Inverness to Glencoe one day, which was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. While on the road, there was a sign indicating where we could take a road that would take us to the Hebrides, and immediately I remembered this film. I was suddenly taken with the idea of driving off west toward the Hebrides and finding my own slice of romantic Scotland which I could claim for my own for a few days. Of course I didn’t have time for such an excursion, but I wanted to see this picture again when I returned. It’s so nice to see the location scenery in this film, which is just gorgeous by the sea and mountains. There’s also a Scottish pride on display here, particularly in the sequence where Joan and Torquil watch the Scottish pipers playing tunes while everyone in the hall dances. This is such a terrifically shot sequence of motion, faces, and romantic longing.

So back to Wendy Hiller. From 1937 to 1956, she only appeared in 6 films! Oh how I wish we had more examples of her film acting from this era. She is one of those actresses who commands your attention. She’s not even particularly what one would call traditionally beautiful by Hollywood standards. She's a bit angular and has a face resembling a horse or something to that effect.But there’s something about her that draws you in and it’s her personal spirit. This film, one of the great romances of the era, works so well because we really like the Joan character. We just so desperately want her to be happy because we like her so very much. We root for her and we want her to find happiness, whether it be through fate or chance or whatever, just so long as she finds it. This film is as much a romance between the viewer and Hiller as it is between Joan and Torquil. It’s a terrifically written film, with wonderful subversive sequences (credit titles, dream sequence), great cinematography in Scotland, terrific performances all leading to one of Powell and Pressburger's breeziest entertainments and greatest films.


David said...

Thanks for picking up this forgotten classic,Jon.I'm also a fan of Wendy Hiller,her liveliness shines through the entire film.I envy you had the chance to go to Scotland,I dreamed to have to trip to the highland after watching this film,the shore and the castle,and the legend,what a dream place!

Jon said...

Thanks David! Yeah this film is quite enchanting. I had no idea I would have had time to visit Scotland when I went to the UK. For fortunate accident, the time presented itself and I was able to make it work. We did a whole circle around the country. Fantastic!!! Would go again!! Hiller is quite something. :)

Sam Juliano said...

Jon, I do like the film a lot, but I wouldn't quite have it with the likes of BLACK NARCISSUS, COLONEL BLIMP, THE RED SHOES and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Still, as you rightly note it's a breazy entertainment suffused with impeccable craftsmanship and the screen and stage icon Wendy Hiller, who you write about here with adoration. I can't say I blame you either. This is a lovely film, and you've afforded it justice in every sense.

Jon said...

Yes this is a notch below those you mentioned, but still a tremendous film and rather fun. Hiller is quite something. I'm glad you stopped by to comment!