I Know Where I'm Going! Review

From a very young age Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) has shown herself to be a very determined and forward looking young woman - ambitious and driven, she knows what she wants and what she wants is the best. Engaged to a wealthy industrialist, Sir Robert Bellinger, she embarks on the journey that is the culmination of her ambitions, taking the train to Scotland, to the Hebridean isle of Kiloran, where the wedding ceremony is to take place. Arriving in Port Erraig however, she discovers that she can’t make the crossing to Kiloran that night on account of the fog. No matter how single-minded and determined she is to have things her way, there are some things she has no control over.

As the weather continues to worsen, Joan has to spend a few days in Tobermory and finds that in addition to being at the mercy of the elements, she is in a new kind of world where the rules and values she has been relying on no longer apply. This is not a place for fine dresses and refined manners, nor for fancy houses with “swimming ponds”. This is a place of legends, ancient curses and wild unpredictable weather, where being poor is something quite different from merely having no money. Having been sure all her life of what she wants and determined to get it, Joan is reluctant to relinquish her dreams - an attitude that initially sets her against Torquil MacNeill (Roger Livesey), the Laird of Kiloran, who has returned from Navy service to spend 8 days back home – but the land and the people bring Joan to an unexpected and painful realisation.

I Know Where I’m Going! opens with a fabulous sense of pace and rhythm that is customary from Powell and Pressburger films, drawing you immediately into their world with a unique and clever approach, sweeping you along with a rapid series of playful situations and little visual jokes that are nonetheless packed with information and a sense of purpose that fully matches the intent of the film. It definitely knows where it is going and it knows quite how to get there!

Full of local colour, local characters and local legends, making use of authentic Scottish locations of the Isle of Mull, I Know Where I’m Going! extends the themes of Powell & Pressburger’s previous film A Canterbury Tale, and just as successfully finds and conveys the spiritual dimension of people’s relationship with the land and the community through an unwitting pilgrimage its characters undertake. Just as the filmmakers surpassed the limitations of making a wartime propaganda film with A Canterbury Tale, showing everyone – men and women, town and country, British and American – all pitching together for a common good by relating it to Michael Powell’s personal bond with the Kent countryside, so too in I Know Where I’m Going! do Powell and Pressburger touch on a level of inner spirituality that acquits them of any charges of dabbling in touristy misty Celtic folklore and mysticism.

Like A Canterbury Tale, the filmmakers achieve this almost invisibly with deceptive ease in I Know Where I’m Going!, through the particular combination of techniques unique to the art of filmmaking - through rhythms of dialogue, lighting, editing and music. The film puts forward two ways of living, each incompatible with the other, and gives them their own sense of composition, pace and even texture. The glossy glamour of Joan Webster’s upwardly-mobile lifestyle is cut to a quite specific rhythm of fast-paced scenes of short duration, glitteringly and softly lit. The rhythm of Joan’s train journey, the listing of a very specific timetable and even little visual elements like steam blowing out of a top hat, all combine to create a very particular impression of efficiency, detachment, of a modern life that is little more than surface appearances, glossy, glamorous, materialistic and empty. With very subtle precision, the filmmakers gradually introduce an alternative lifestyle – although even before she arrives in Scotland, there are signs that Joan has some minor niggling doubts that she can’t quite put her finger on, so determined is she that she knows her own mind. Gradually, the ideals of Cartier diamond rings, expensive restaurants and elaborate wedding plans give way to rolling hills, dark stone castles, swirling seas and tides and a much more relaxed pace, one where the rhythm of life matches the surroundings in a much more compatible and human way. Like the superlative use of location in the subsequent Black Narcissus, the picture postcard beauty is not merely used for decorative splendour, but symbolically and archetypically to represent the emotional and sexual awakening the lead character is undergoing.

The imbalance of these asynchronous rhythms initially causes conflict, the collision of two worlds rubbing up against each other creating a powerful dissonance. This leads to the turning point in the film, which is as powerful as it should be, yet handled with incredible delicacy through the use of suggestion. It occurs at a Céilidh, a gathering of people celebrating everything that is important to them in their lives, sharing it with others and expressing it in song and dance. Through the interaction of the various couples, through Mr & Mrs Campbell celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, through the very music, movement, rhythm and pace, everything comes together – of family, of tradition, of life in touch with the environment - and Joan disconcertedly sees her previous values crumble into dust. To the film’s credit and perceptiveness of the script, characterisation and performance, it takes Wendy Hiller’s strong-willed Joan a little longer to actually realise what has happened, that her life has been changed from where she was sure she knew it was going. She wants to deny what has been revealed to her, and the final wrench must necessarily be a violent and painful one.

I Know Where I’m Going! is released in France by the Institut Lumière under the French title “Je Sais Ou Je Vais”. The DVD is presented as a 2-disc set, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The disc is entirely English friendly, with removable French subtitles from the film, and all extra features either in English, or subtitled in English. It is included in one of two Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger boxsets and is also available separately. The DVD is available from the Institut Lumière website.

As ever with Powell & Pressburger films, I Know Where I’m Going is beautifully photographed – by Erwin Hillier (A Canterbury Tale) - making strong use of the light and shade that is so important to convey the inner life of the film. Thankfully, the transfer is fully up to representing the film with a print that scarcely contains a mark or scratch. It has clearly been well-restored, as one or two frames show evidence of problems, but the restoration work renders then all but invisible. The transfer is stable and there is no light flicker. The monochrome tones are strong, with pleasing blacks, allowing a reasonable level of detail, texture and shadow information to be seen. It’s slightly on the soft side, the range of tones is not the finest, but it’s a lovely transfer nonetheless.

A fine soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, is clear with no distortion or reverberation. Dialogue is clear and warmly toned.

There are no hard of hearing English subtitles here, only optional French subtitles.

The extra features are spread across the two discs. Disc one contains an Introduction (6:43) by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. Accompanied by some beautiful promotional stills and behind-the-scenes shots, the French filmmaker gives a fine overview of the film’s themes – particularly its romantic aspect – and the circumstances of its casting and making. Original Trailers are also included for I Know Where I’m Going! (2:05), A Canterbury Tale (2:03), Peeping Tom, Black Narcissus (2:27), The Red Shoes (2:22) and The 49th Parallel (3:01).

Disc 2 contains the main extra features, which give a wide perspective on the work. Memories of Michael (15:01) is the 5th part of a longer interview with Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell spread over the other discs in the collection. Here, in one of the longer interviews, she gives much more personal insight into Powell’s directing style and provides some fantastic anecdotes about Pamela Brown and the making of the film.

In The Daring Of An Adventurer (18:38) Bertrand Tavernier provides another fascinating in-depth look at the film, looking at the challenges of shooting in a remote location, filming with one of the actors in Scotland and the other in London and how they managed to draw so much out of an apparently limited script.

Michael Powell’s Home Movies (6:49) shows some colour footage Powell shot in the region during one of his walking expeditions there about ten years after the filming of I Know Where I’m Going!. Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell narrates, pointing out features and the characteristics of the people and the land, also reading a relevant extract from Powell’s biography.

A different outlook on the film is presented in A Sailor’s Vision (9:37) by Roland Jourdain, a French competitive sailor, who speaks of his love for the film, his own experience of the waters in that part of the world and the authenticity of the final climatic sea scene.

I Know Where I’m Going! doesn’t appear to be the most impressive of Powell and Pressburger’s films, and there is clearly much more to admire in films like The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life And Death. Much as I admire those films however, I don’t love them the way I love I Know Where I’m Going!, which is probably my favourite Pressburger and Powell film. Beautifully photographed, audaciously yet subtly scripted, directed with brilliance and originality, charmingly performed, it’s a film that doesn’t keep you at a respectfully appreciative distance the way I find the others do with their idealised fantasy worlds – imaginative and impressive though those are - but draws you in to a much more persuasively real world that can be found through the putting aside of materialistic concerns. The French Institut Lumière edition is a wonderful way to appreciate this film, in a two disc set that takes great care with the presentation of the film and the features that accompany it.

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