Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's hymn to Scotland and one of the most endearingly romantic films ever made, I Know Where I'm Going! is the perfect antidote for any film fan who has perhaps seen too much and is starting to get bored. Partly presented in a charming style resembling 'magic realism', the movie overflows with life and hope and
meditations on the worth of personal goals. Practically a 'bed and breakfast' of movies, it wins over everyone who sees it. Criterion's DVD is a reformatting of their earlier wonderful laserdisc set, and contains extras which can only be described as priceless.
Ambitious and headstrong since childhood, young Englishwoman Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller in a performance even better than Pygmalion) takes a train journey to the northern isles of Scotland, there to wed. Her stuffy fiancée is an industrialist millionaire twice her age but romance is but a trifle to Joan, who sees nothing troubling at all in the prestige and class that the marriage will make hers. But the last leg of a long trip is delayed by bad weather, marooning Joan in a tiny coastal village with only one telephone, and worse, temptation in the form of Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). A Royal Navy officer on leave also stranded by the storm, Torquil is immediately attracted to Joan, who resists mightily. The problem for Joan is that the charm of the landscape and the vibrancy of the locals tempt her with a vision of an alternate future based on a set of values she had previously discounted. Her wedding dress hangs in its cellophane bag, reminding her that if she doesn't soon get to her island destination all of her proud plans may crumble ...
I Know Where I'm Going! (IKWIG to the cognoscenti) is another movie so precious (yep, precious) that Savant feels better hinting at its treasures rather than risk spoiling the experience of seeing it fresh. If you're married or have a girlfriend or boyfriend, this is a must-rent, even if you never watch 1945 B&W English movies.
That's it for the plug. Now to discuss the movie without spoiling it. IKWIG has been described as a quasi-fantasy. Powell's amusingly creative visuals -- a top hat chugs smoke like a railroad engine; a dream sequence has Webster literally marrying a factory dynamo while her train traverses a Scotland landscape covered with tartan patterns -- only make the hushed fogs and biting sea winds of the isolated land's end seem all the more real. Joan Webster is slowly seduced less by a handsome and charming sailor than by a place. Soaked in fog and sea spray, the locale abounds with petty superstitions, grand myths and proud traditions that live in the souls of its people.
Joan's flighty impatience is countered by the unspoken communication between the locals, especially Torquil and the luminous Catriona Potts, played by the wonderful Pamela Brown. This woman comes on like a primal force of nature, stomping into her house with a brace of hunting dogs and commenting silently on everything she sees with her huge,
dark eyes. When Joan bribes a needy local into taking a risky boat trip against the counsel of harbormaster Ruairidh Mor (Finlay Currie), all the themes of the film come together in a literal whirlpool out of Norse legend. More importantly, although Joan is never really branded a fool, the cheapness of her values is underscored in contrast with the very young couple, Kenny and Bridie (Murdo Morrison and Margot Fitzsimmons). Joan's willingness to risk their lives for her own momentary convenience provides the moral problem that elevates I Know Where I'm Going! high above what passes for light romance at the movies, in 1945 or 2001.
In the scheme of English Cinema, if there is one, IKWIG is also a gentle nudge to a nation emerging from the Second World War, to consider a future without harsh class distinctions. England seems so civilized in movies that we forget that its class differences were once so completely institutionalized that the social mobility we enjoy here in America was impossible. The rich industrialist that Joan can't wait to marry has presumably profited mightily from WW2 while sitting it all out on a leased island retreat. The impoverished local landowners, who live modest lives with
their neighbors, wait tables and hunt rabbits to put meat on the table like everyone else. Young couples like Kenny and Bridie must postpone their marriage plans indefinitely as there's no money to emigrate and no way to make a living, literally until someone dies to make room in the local economy.
Against these people facing up to unglamorous realities with courage and character, Joan Webster's rush to throw herself into a future of elite luxury seems fundamentally, criminally wrong. Never ones to make blunt social statements, Powell and Pressburger's meaningful plea for a human and caring English post-war future is a statement of national strengths. The 'kitchen-sink' criticism that British films would offer a decade later, although valid, seems unproductively negative by comparison. Should England marry the aloof upper class or embrace her people, the movie seems to ask, and proceeds to thoroughly answer.
Criterion's DVD of IKWIG! is an almost unchanged reformatting of their previous special laserdisc. The picture is the same good digital transfer but it's not quite up to the standard of the best Criterions, probably because of the limited source material available. There is dirt and some minimal instability here and there and for all Savant knows this is the best there is, period. It's just that it would have been nice to see something like the miracle job bestowed upon their The Third Man disc.
The DVD extras are some of the most rewarding Savant's seen. A 1994 documentary by Mark Cousins, I Know Where I'm Going! Revisited establishes a leisurely pace as it shows New York writer Nancy Franklin's journey to visit the actual locations of the film 50 years after the fact. She discovers that all the main sites actually exist, including important details like the phone booth bizarrely mis-located adjacent to a noisy waterfall. Locals who helped in the shooting are interviewed, as is Petula Clark, who played a precocious girl in one scene. Also included, from Powell's widow Thelma Schoonmaker, are home movies and commentaries. Franklin also has a fully annotated snapshot collection of her trip. A final extra is an excerpt from Powell's early docu-feature, Edge of the World, which is about the inhabitants of a similar island faced with the prospect of being relocated away from their home roots. In it can be seen favorite actor Niall MacGinnis (Curse of the Demon, Jason and the Argonauts, No Highway in the Sky) when he was very young and very thin.
A superlative film, I Know Where I'm Going! is as romantic as they come and twice as deep. It's got a special place in my family, and if you are a breathing human and not some modern Pod Person you'll love it too. Wait until you hear the title song, sung to the rhythm of railroad wheels and magical wedding dresses!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, I Know Where I'm Going! rates:
Sound: Good -
Supplements: documentary, film excerpts, home movies, stills, commentaries
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 1, 2001