"i know where i'm going!" (1945)

a commentary by Tony McRae

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's masterpiece is the odyssey of a determined young woman of twenty-five who is traveling north from Manchester to an island in the Outer Hebrides to marry a business tycoon, Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest men in England.  Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is self-assured, knows what she wants and how to get it.  We could call her a gold-digger.  The island is question is Kiloran, easy enough to get to--if the weather cooperates.  Alas, it does not, and so when Joan arrives at the island of Mull to take the boat to Kiloran she is dismayed to find a  heavy fog and a roiling sea.  She must wait.  

As in The Tempest weather plays its crucial part in undermining and ultimately rearranging even the most careful plans.  Without her knowing it, the western highlands begin to have an effect on Joan's psyche:  she is at once frustrated and intrigued, all the while cursing the weather.  She is thrust together with another passenger on his way to Kiloran, a naval officer on a week's leave with the very Scottish name of Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a native of the island.   During their wait for the weather to clear, Torquil and Joan pass by Moy Castle.  "Now's my chance to see the castle," she says, having learned of it from her chauffeur.  "I suppose you've been inside hundreds of times."  He hasn't and he's not about to now.  "You needn't be afraid of a curse upon the castle," she says playfully.  Torquil is surprised she knows about this, and that it has to do with the lairds of Kiloran.  "I don't know if the wives--or rather the future wives--of the lairds are involved," she says gaily, "but I'll risk it."  She pushes open the door and then looks back at him.  "Coming?"

"I'd better introduce myself," he says reluctantly.  "I am MacNeil of Kiloran.  And I am the laird of Kiloran.  Sir Robert Bellinger has only rented it for the duration."
"I see," she says, visibly shaken.  She decides not to enter after all.
"There's not much difference," he says, hoping to placate her.  "It's his for the time being anyhow."
She asks him if he is afraid.  He replies, "My father never entered Moy Castle, nor did my grandfather nor his father, nor will I."

Though Sir Robert is never seen, we--and Joan and Torquil--soon find out what the locals think of him.  On the bus ride to the coast to see if the wind has abated, they tell Torquil about the great man.  "Like a little king he is," says one; "He brings salmon from the mainland, and the waters here are full of salmon," says another; and "He has the finest tackle from Glasgow but the fish don't know it."  Joan is not amused.  Though Torquil apologizes for his countrymen, he is silently pleased, for he has become taken with the strong-willed woman.

While waiting out the weather, Joan stays with Catriona Potts (Pamela Brown), a widow who belongs to what could be called the impoverished upper middle class.  She is clearly in love with Torquil MacNeil.  She treats Joan (intentionally?) with the insouciance of one who holds money in low regard, clearly Joan Webster's opposite, for the Websters are from the lower middle-class and spend their days in the pursuit of a better life.  Catriona admits to Joan that money would be nice, she'd love to have much more, but she is not about to change her life to get it, and she implies that Torquil is of the same mind.  

Still, we must ask why Joan is going to Sir Robert.  Yes, he has beckoned her to his (rented) island to become his bride.  One might argue that she is in love, though I suspect she is taken more with the idea of marrying into aristocracy.  She is bright enough to know that love is based on a mutual interchange, an interdependency, and perhaps that is precisely the problem the viewer has with Joan's insistence on marrying a man who seems not at all dependent on anyone.  Joan herself eschews dependence, refuses help of any kind, insisting only on her desire to get to Kiloran.  For her, love seems a matter of will, a decision made.  If Sir Robert Bellinger is not quite the man she thought he was (after all, he has misled her into believing she was coming to his island), he is still rich and he wants her with him.  She has made up her mind--on with her dream.

Ah, but Joan has not entered a mundane place but rather a land imbued with the mystical, with its own spells and curses and legends, its own edge-of-the-world logic.  While waiting impatiently at the boat landing she looks across at Kiloran and says it would take only half an hour to get there.  Ruairidh Mor (Finlay Currie), a leading patriarch of the area says, "In less than a second you can get from one world to the next."  This is precisely what is happening to Joan Webster, she is being taken to another life indeed.  Powell and Pressburger use the inclement weather with its fog and mist to create a very real yet ethereal place, a sanctuary where one can survive and be content enough without many worldly goods.  It is far from Joan Webster's ultimate destination.  Or so she thinks.  Catriona has her pegged, and tells Torquil that her increasingly frantic efforts to get to Kiloran is her need to escape her growing feeling for him.  "She's running away from you," she tells her, knowing she is ending any chance for herself.

Finally, after a near fatal attempt to get to Kiloran, the weather clears and the island  stands crisp and inviting on the horizon.  As Joan is about to descend to the boat that will take her to Sir Robert she has one more request for Torquil, that he kiss her.  I take this as her final self-test, just to convince herself she is doing the right thing.  After the embrace she goes off to the harbor.  As for Torquil ... well to hell with the damn curse, he thinks.  And he enters the castle.  It is a magical scene, and when he finally makes his way to the turret and reads the inscription carved in stone, he understands it is a most ambiguous curse.  Torquil hears his old nanny's voice (in a voice-over) as she must have recounted the legend of the curse to young Torquil, the future laird of Kiloran, so many years ago:

Never shall he leave it a free man.  He shall be chained to a woman to the end of his days and he shall die in his chains.

At that moment he hears the pipers who were to play at Joan's wedding and he sees down below Joan marching toward the castle behind them.

It has taken Joan some time to understand that love is aimed at persons, and while Sir Robert remains for us a non-person, by the story's end he has become that for Joan also.  Or more accurately, Torquil is all too real:  it is inevitable that she succumbs.  Inevitable, but in the hands of Powell and Pressburger never predictable.

Wendy Hiller is perfect in the part, with that steely countenance that gives signs of cracking only to rebuild itself.  Her eyes give her away, especially in the presence of Roger Livesey whose soft burr of a voice finally erodes her defenses.   

Powell and Pressburger have made some of the greatest films in the English language (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and others),  yet I Know Where I'm Going!  moves me beyond all reason.  When Joan asks Torquil to kiss him, and when she returns with the pipers, I am so pleased I can barely contain myself.  This for me is the magic of the movies.


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