I Know Where I'm Going!
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey
Sometimes it happens – you fall totally and completely in love. You weren’t expecting it. You weren’t prepared for it. You certainly didn’t plan on it happening, but before you know it, you’re over the moon, and joy and elation abound. Sometimes it’s hard to tell why – you can’t really say why you fell so much in love – but does logic every really apply to grand passion?
Am I speaking of the plot of the romantic drama I Know Where I’m Going?
I’m talking about how I feel about this film.
Joan (Hiller) knows where she’s going. She’s going to a remote Hebridean island to marry her very much older and very much richer fiancé (a character who, coincidentally, is never seen on screen). Along the way she meets dashing but penniless Torquil MacNeil (Livesey) – which, by the way, is perhaps the single best name for a hero ever – who is the laird of the island in question. Joan’s determination to marry rich starts to waiver as Torquil, who is immediately taken with Joan, begins pursuing her.
Torquil is desperately trying to woo Joan, and finds that ladders help.
I love the character of Joan. Some find her annoying – her cutthroat personality and her determination to get her hands on some money through a gold digging marriage have rubbed a number of viewers the wrong way. OK, I hear your argument, but I completely disagree. One must take into account time and place when studying her character. This was 1945 England, a war-ravaged land. Everything was rationed, and life was not comfortable. Really, I can’t blame Joan for making an initial choice to marry well. Women didn’t have much power, and Joan is choosing to use the little power she does possess to make a comfortable life for herself. She’s an empowered woman, not content to settle into the life she’s been given. I love her for that. Interestingly, this is not the only film from the thirties, forties, or fifties for that matter to feature a female protagonist hell bent on getting her hands on the stuff. How many Depression era comedies featured the same story line? Or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for that matter?
At this point in the proceedings, I have to explain something about myself: I very clearly identify myself as feminist. So what, you might say. Well, here’s the thing: I’m a feminist, so I really like strong female characters. But I’m also a woman who likes romance movies. I love to watch the hero and heroine fall in love with each other. Unfortunately, there are precious few romance movies out there that can appease both sides of my personality. Far too many romantic comedies are utter drivel. I recently watched Kate Winslet’s The Holiday (2006) because I was bored on a Friday night. I rather wish, now that I’ve seen it, that I had just turned off the television instead. Pure drivel. Inane drivel. Hollywood has incredibly low standards when it comes to the romantic garbage they produce. So here I am, someone who really adores watching a good love story, but also can’t seem to find many good love stories.
Then I saw I Know Where I’m Going!. And I think that’s why I fell in love with it.
Joan is large and in charge from the get go. She will fold or bend for no one, even if it’s rather more sensible if she stopped being stubborn and simply listened to those around her. God bless her, I love her for that. So my feminist side is quite happy with this movie because of Joan.
The romance-loving side of me goes gaga for buck-toothed Livesey as Torquil. Hoo nelly, do I find him incredibly attractive, something which is helped out by the fact that when he's not wearing a naval officer's uniform, he's tramping around in a kilt. He is kind-hearted, caring, and is instantly and genuinely taken with Joan, spending the entire movie trying to woo her despite her best efforts to rebuke him. He woos her with subtle glances, a shared cigarette, a rendez-vous with a ladder, a plate served... he can't help himself. I love that he is attracted to her. He is not attracted to her because she is beautiful, but because she is strong. I adore that. I can’t get over that. It seals the deal in my little romance-loving feminist book.
What really puts I Know Where I’m Going! over the top for me is the ending. Spoiler – the two wind up together! Shocking, I know. That’s not the point. The point is how the two wind up together. Far too often, romance films employ the trope of having the hero pursue the heroine, rescuing her in some way, shape, or form, or tracking her down. I’m sick and tired of seeing a man run after a woman, and then the woman immediately takes him back or falls into his arms. It’s as if the woman had no choice in the matter, and it was simply that the man finally decided he wanted to be with her. I really don’t care for that particular storytelling mechanism. Not in the least. It takes the power out of the woman’s hands.
What I find far more agreeable and far more powerful is if the roles are reversed. The couple has parted ways for some minor plot obstacle, and it is the woman who then decides that she wants the man. The woman has the power here. She is the one making the choice about the relationship. And, pretty amazingly for 1945, that’s exactly what happens in I Know Where I’m Going!. Ultimately, it is HBIC Joan who decides that she wants to be with handsome Torquil after all, and runs back to him. But it is her choice.
I cannot overstate how powerful I find this particular plot device, and how sadly infrequently it is used.
Apart from the wonderfully, blissfully romantic main couple, Scotland is truly the star here. This is a real Scotland, full of bad weather, craggy cliffs, rough seas, old castles... it's marvelous. Yet, at the same time, there is something mystical and magical about this Scotland, full of mist and fog and possibilities. Of all the movies I've seen, and I've seen my fair share, this is one of the few for whom I would love, REALLY love, to visit the actual location. Most of the scenes were shot on location, and you can stay in the hotel where a great deal of the action takes place. In one scene, an older lady talks about Scotland with such rapture that it makes me want to book the next plane to Edinburgh.
Pressburger's camera here is gorgeous and fluid, exploring fantastic chiaroscuro shots with gorgeous clouds and waves and fog. The interplay of light and shadow makes it almost look like a noir; you can easily see he was influenced by German Expressionism. Shot after shot could be snapped as a photo. He also made wonderful use of backscreen photography, projecting background footage on a screen and filming the actors in front of the screen. It's not CGI, but it's damn effective, especially considering the movie was shot on location in Scotland BUT Roger Livesey never once stepped foot in Scotland while making the movie. He was doing a stage play in London and couldn't make it to the location for the shoot, so all his scenes had to be re-engineered with body doubles and backscreens. The first time I found out about this, I had already seen the movie twice and couldn't tell AT ALL.
I love this movie. Seriously love this movie. Rank-it-in-my-top-ten-of-all-time love this movie. Never-get-sick-of-watching-it love this movie. Recently, I’ve been made aware that my fervent passion is not exactly shared by others who have seen this film. ‘Trivial,’ it’s been called. To which I will respond with a quote from my favorite podcast personality, Jeff Cannata: “If I, or anyone else, doesn’t love the thing you love, that doesn’t mean you can’t love it.” Haters to the left. This movie rocks. (Oh, and by the way, this is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite films too. Rock on, Marty.)
This is my favorite romance of all time. All time. Yes, I’ve seen Casablanca. No, I don’t think it’s more romantic than I Know Where I’m Going! I love this movie.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10 Were you surprised? No? Good for you, you win. Get yourself a cookie as a reward.