Active Ingredients: Elegant screenplay; Whimsical direction; Warmhearted tone
Side Effects: Visual effects and style of storm sequence
The films of Michael Powell (both with and without his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger) are justifiably remembered for their imaginative use of lush Technicolor, their technical virtuosity and their grand sweep. But Powell’s cinema is just as affecting and masterful when operating on a much smaller scale, as is the case in 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going. Made immediately before a trio of much larger and more colorful films (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes: masterpieces all), this small gem demonstrates the radiant positivity and generosity of spirit that pervades all of Powell’s work, a quality that persists even after the luminous Technicolor is drained away.
I Know Where I’m Going is a joyous bucolic idyll, a kind of romantic fable in which a headstrong British social climber finds love within the peaceful simplicity of life in the Scottish Isles. The film is beautifully crafted and perfectly structured with a genuinely moving and triumphant love story, but it also serves to demonstrate Powell’s belief in the wisdom, dignity and hidden grace of rural life.
Like John Ford, cinema’s other great celebrator of community, Powell is interested in the humility of a way of life found far apart from the pretensions of class and the ugliness of money. This sentiment appears as early as Powell’s first independently-produced film, 1937’s Edge of the World (whose title is telling and significant), and continued through 49th Parallel and A Canterbury Tale, but it’s never been as pointed and celebratory as it is here.
I Know Where I’m Going is full of charm and whimsy, both of the rocky Scottish seaside in which it’s set as well as the area’s contented, salt-of-the-earth inhabitants. As Roger Livesey‘s local laird Torquil McNeil points out, “they’re not poor, they just haven’t got any money.” When a storm prevents Wendy Hiller‘s Joan from reaching the island of Kiloran to marry a wealthy British visitor for his money, she befriends Torquil who introduces her to the pleasures of his way of life—of swimming in the sea instead of a pool, of catching your own salmon instead of buying it from the fishmonger and of being happy with what you have instead of tirelessly striving for more.
Unlike Ford, however, Powell emphasizes the folkloric wisdom and even mysticism of this beautiful but remote and volatile terrain. There’s talk of an ancient curse on a dilapidated castle, of superstitions and answered prayers, and all the while a storm is brewing designed especially to teach Joan that she may, in fact, not know where she’s going.
For his part, Ford prized the stability of community over legends and traditions, and as a result his style is more grounded and realistic than Powell’s. Perhaps the apotheosis of this communitarian strain in Ford’s cinema is the church raising sequence in My Darling Clementine (though Wagon Master is closer in tone to Powell’s film). The small Western outpost is celebrating the establishment of the physical representation of their community with a dance, and Ford imbues the sequence with an infectious spirit of joy and goodness.
For all of My Darling Clementine‘s enduring effervescence, I Know Where I’m Going, released one year earlier, contains an even more profoundly affecting sequence of communal celebration. Acting as the beating heart of the film structurally as well as emotionally and morally, a diamond wedding anniversary party typifies the spirit of I Know Where I’m Going, and indeed, all of Powell’s work.
Joan’s fiancé encourages her to spend the evening with his wealthy British friends, “the only people around worth knowing,” he claims. But, in contrast to the warmth and vitality she’s enjoyed in all the locals, Joan finds these aristocratic snobs boring, conceited and condescending. They dismiss the local culture and tradition as fit only for their Scottish servants, not urbanites like themselves. With a kind of demented and spooky fervor, one aristocrat even describes her vision of developing the islands and filling them with tourists giving high-society balls.
Torquil saves Joan from a dull night of bridge playing and takes her to a raucous party where the rest of the town is celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of a much-loved local couple. It’s just the kind of event the Brits would abhor, and what they’d seek to supplant with more “proper” affairs.
But the party is lively and reverent and the sequence is simply joyous. In fact, it’s one of the most ebullient sequences in cinema history, a scene that positively oozes love. Young and old alike sing, smile and dance, basking in the glow of the enduring love of the elderly couple they’re feting. New loves are formed as well, as Powell takes the time to linger on a young boy and girl along the edges of the scene who are gracefully woven in and out of the action until they too end up together.
At the center of the film’s narrative, this celebration also represents the blossoming love between Joan and Torquil. Listening to the sound of three pipers piping the Scottish tune “Nut-Brown Maiden,” Torquil insinuates his affection for Joan; she can’t admit her own feelings yet, but she does learn the pleasures of the life that Torquil represents.
Incidentally, the three pipers fit neatly into Powell’s moral belief in humility and the importance of expressing gratitude for whatever you have. The pipers have also been stranded by the storm, but instead of being just another neglected extravagance by Joan’s fiancé, they’re appreciated and adored by the dancing townspeople who all praise their good fortune: “three pipers, can you believe it?!”
In one small but truly powerful moment—a simple touch that moved me deeply—the adoring congregation of friends and family beg the old man to give a speech. They quiet down, leaning in to hear the words a respected elder might share with them after a lifetime lived in love. He opens his mouth to speak, but, overcome with emotion, waves the request off. There are simply no words that could ever express what he feels, surrounded by the love of his wife and his community.
Instead, it will be up to each one of the attendants to discover these truths for the themselves, just as he did. Perhaps the young boy and girl will discover his happiness on their own sixtieth wedding anniversary. Perhaps our two protagonists will as well. But they’ll have to endure a great trial before they admit their passions to each other, before they too learn to embrace the pleasures of life both great and small, setting aside anxieties to go through life happy and fulfilled in each other.