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I Know Where I'm Going!
Magill's Survey of Cinema; 15th June 1995

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), on her way to the Scottish Hebrides to marry a wealthy industrialist, is delayed by bad weather at Port Erraig. There she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), and although she falls in love with him, she tries desperately to fight off those feelings because she wants to marry into money. In the end, she is unable to resist, and she gives in to her heart.

I Know Where I'm Going! is one of those delightful "little" films at which the British seem to excel. It is a short, simple story, well-written, beautifully acted, and lovingly photographed. It reaffirms old truths -- that money does not create happiness, that love triumphs over all -- against a pastoral Scottish setting replete with the music of bagpipes, the lilt of spoken Gaelic, the stomp of joyous dancing, and portents of ancient curses about to be fulfilled.

In the story, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) has always wanted the better things in life. At age five, she asked Father Christmas to bring her a pair of real silk stockings; at twelve, she managed to get a ride from the milkman while other school girls had to stand in line for the bus; and at eighteen, she talked a young man into taking her to eat at an excellent hotel once a month even though he had originally wanted to take her to the movies twice a week. At twenty-six, she is about to achieve her goal and marry wealth and position in the person of Sir Robert Bellenger (who is not seen in the film), the head of Consolidated Chemical Industries, a man who is almost as old as her father. Her trip from London to the island of Kiloran in the Hebrides, where she will be married, proceeds according to schedule until she reaches Port Erraig, across the sea from Kiloran. A fog has prevented the boat from Kiloran from reaching her, and the townspeople refuse to take her across in such weather.

It is already clear that in Port Erraig, Joan is in another world, a world where people have the good sense to stand back and watch nature's fury rather than pit themselves against it. Instead of the sounds of the machines that have surrounded her, Joan hears the voices of seals singing their appreciation of the warm, foggy weather that is preventing her from reaching Kiloran. This is not an easy land from which to make a living, and while the people nurture a knowledge of the old language and exhibit more than a touch of whimsy in their belief in ancient legends and curses, they also possess a tough sense of reality and a practical knowledge of what is important and possible in this world.

Also waiting to reach Kiloran is Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), on an eight-day leave from the Navy and World War II. That night, Joan takes refuge in the house of Catriona Potts (Pamela Brown), an old friend of Torquil's, where she also meets Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C. W. R. Knight), a rather crusty retired military man who is now a falconer. Before falling asleep, Joan wishes for a wind to blow the fog away; the next morning there is a full-blown gale warning, and the locals again refuse to risk taking her across the stormy sea. Since they are both stranded, Torquil acts as Joan's guide to the lovely island and its equally colorful inhabitants.

During their wanderings, they come across the ruins of Moray Castle with its terrible curse on any Laird of Kiloran who should cross the threshold. Thinking that her fiance is the Laird of Kiloran, Joan declares that she does not know if the curse applies to wives of the Laird, but she intends to enter the castle. Torquil stops her from entering by confessing that he is the Laird of Kiloran, and that Lord Bellenger has only rented Kiloran from him. As Laird, he has no intention of entering the castle.

As the days go by, Joan finds it difficult to resist the earthy kindness of the people, especially that of Torquil, and she finds herself very drawn to him. Even when she tries to avoid him by visiting friends of Lord Bellenger, he appears. He even escorts her to a "Ceilidh" (pronounced "kayley"), a Highland festival in honor of a couple celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary. Joan tries to leave the celebration early, but the hosts, aided by Torquil, sweep her into their festivities so successfully that she and Torquil are declared the best dancers there.

The next day, Joan is frantic to get to Kiloran and away from Torquil, but the sea is still too choppy to cross. While Torquil is trying to help Colonel Barnstaple find a lost eagle, Joan offers Kenny (Murdo Morrison), a village boy, twenty pounds to take her to Kiloran. In this impoverished land, twenty pounds is a fortune, and it would allow Kenny to marry his girl, Bridie (Margot Fitzsimons), so he accepts Joan's offer. Out on the hills, Torquil sees Joan and Kenny at the boat; he surmises what is going on and tries to stop them. Bridie too beseeches Joan to change her mind. She berates Joan for not being able to control her passions, saying that she would rather wait four years to marry Kenny than have him risk his life on the treacherous sea for twenty pounds. It is not passion, however, that is driving Joan, it is desperation, and she begs Bridie to see that she is in grave danger herself, in danger of losing everything she has ever wanted. Hearing this, Catriona Potts tells Torquil that Joan is not running to Kiloran as much as she is running away from him, and he goes along on the boat in an attempt to prevent the tragedy that all believe is inevitable.

The sea is extremely treacherous, and while the three fight to keep the small boat afloat, the wind whips Joan's wedding dress overboard. The engine stalls just as "Corryvreckan," the second largest whirlpool in Europe, roars to life. Torquil manages to start the engine in time to power the boat out of the path of the whirlpool, and they return to Port Erraig, exhausted but alive. Safe and warm at Catriona's, Joan fears that they must all think her awful for marrying a rich man. Catriona assures her that everyone in Tobermoray would like more money, including Torquil, but that money is not everything.

The next morning, the storm has died down, and the boat from Kiloran finally comes to meet Joan and the three pipers who have hired by Lord Bellenger to play at the wedding. Since Torquil has decided to return without having seen Kiloran, he walks Joan partway to the Port and requests that she have a song they heard at the Ceilidh played at her wedding. Torquil had recited the old Gaelic song for Joan, including a line which ends, "you're the maid for me." She, in turn, asks that he kiss her. He does, and then they quickly part and go off in their respective directions. On the way back, Torquil stops at Moray Castle, and ignoring the curse, he enters. As he walks through the dark, ominous ruin, a voice recites the story of the curse.

A woman, Katriona MacLain of Erraig, married a MacNeil of Kiloran, even though she loved a cousin who held Moray Castle. After a year and a day of marriage, while her husband was away, the woman went to live with her lover in Moray Castle. One day, MacNeil beseiged the castle, killing everyone in it except the lovers. These two he chained together and threw into a dungeon well, and then he waited until the water level rose and drowned them. Before she died, the woman put a curse on every MacNeil of Kiloran: if any one of them should cross the threshold of the castle, he would never leave a free man.

At this point, Torquil hears the sound of music, and from the ramparts he sees the three pipers marching back toward town with Joan strutting behind them. He calls to her, she runs to him in the castle. She confesses that she would really rather swim in the sea than in a pool, and that she would even like to catch her own fish. In turn, Torquil confesses that he never was afraid of the castle. As they walk back toward Tobermoray, the voice finishes the telling of the curse; that whichever MacNeil of Kiloran crosses the threshold of the castle shall be chained to a woman to the end of his days, and he shall die in his chains.

The film is full of delightful vignettes that develop the character of the town as a whole as well as its individuals. When Joan needs to use a phone, the only one available is halfway up a hill, situated right at the foot of a waterfall, making conversation a yelling match. It seems that Catriona Potts wanted the phone installed down the hill, but the Post Office wanted it up; this location was a compromise. The slightly dotty Colonel Barnstaple spends most of the film in search of his errant golden eagle. He is a devoted bachelor who, at one point, hovers about with a feather-duster and a hairnet, while telling Torquil that he is "potty" for thinking of marriage.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had one of the most successful collaborative partnerships in film history and managed to produce a long series of major and minor classics. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1946) Stairway to Heaven (1946), The Red Shoes (1948) are some of their well-known efforts, all of which were shown in New York in 1980 in a retrospective series sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art film department.

Reviews of I Know Where I'm Going! were very favorable. The film was praised for its lack of pretense, the believability of the characters, the superior acting, especially by Wendy Hiller and Powell-Pressburger favorite Roger Livesey. The delightful blending of reality and legend, the special effects in the storm scenes, and the photography combined to create an atmosphere of rugged and craggy beauty suitable to the inhabitants. All of these features make it a classic, as much of a delight today as it was in 1945.

Other P&P reviews