Screenings 30 October 2023

I Know Where I'm Going: Powell & Pressburger's Scottish Fairytale

With the UK-wide BFI season Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger celebrating the legendary works of the masterful filmmaking duo, many will undoubtedly rush to see known-masterpieces such as Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes on the big screen, but one of their lesser known flicks which may slip through the cracks is I Know Where I’m Going!

Championed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Ari Aster, I Know Where I’m Going! is a story of self discovery and of embracing the unexpected. Finding itself set on the bonnie shores of Scotland, Powell & Pressburger enchant the audience with their gorgeous visuals of the Scottish landscape, creating an authentic experience of a fairy tale on the Scottish isles. 

When it comes to the history of cinema in Scotland, many could be forgiven for thinking Scottish film began with Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl. The attitude of which can be attributed to years of “Scottish films” made through the Hollywood lens in which American actors play Scottish legends (looking at you Braveheart), Scottish Actors play Egyptians (hello Highlander) or in which most of the scenes set in Scotland are simply covered in a studio (far too many to count). Over a hundred years of cinematic innovation and it feels as though the Scottish film industry only really began to grow in the past ten years or so. This could not be farther from the truth.

Though there may not have been a fully blown Scottish film industry as such, Scottish pictures have been produced since the earliest days of the 20th century. Rob Roy (1911), produced by the Scottish Company United Films and starring famous Glasgow stage actor John Clyde, is widely regarded as the first British-made three-reel feature film and the first known feature film made in Scotland. After Roy’s first appearance in the movies in 1911 he would become perennially popular for filmmakers, second only to Mary Stuart as the most filmed Scottish subject and his popularity continues today. The Hippodrome’s annual Silent Film Festival – HippFest screened the 1922 version of Rob Roy with a new commissioned score by David Allison at the 2019 Festival, with a follow-up national tour to eight Scottish venues. This version was filmed entirely on location in the Trossachs and Stirling Castle and featured 800 men from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as extras in the dramatic battle scene. Continuing throughout the silent era there were numerous other Scottish films made such as Bonnie Scotland Calls You (1923), The Life of Robert Burns (1926) and Huntingtower (1927). Unfortunately, most of which have been lost to time.

Premiere of 1927 Scottish feature Huntingtower.

Though the likes of Bill Douglas and Bill Forsyth would come along in the 1970s and 80s, making brilliant and legendary films in their home country like the The Bill Douglas Trilogy or Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, to put it bluntly, they couldn’t do it themselves. The industry in Scotland needed more and though the likes of Trainspotting and Red Road would soon come along, it wouldn’t be until the early 2010s that Cinema in Scotland really saw a boom. 

In spite of this, the 1930s - 1960s points to an interesting time in which Hollywood seemed to have an obsession with old Caledonia, pumping out an almost endless slew of what can only be described as “postcard pictures.” The sort of movie that portrays somewhere on the surface but in actual fact is just a thin display of a place without any real understanding of it. In a cinematic sense this means the sort of film set in Scotland but never actually featuring any real Scots in the primary cast, nor written, directed or produced by a Scot and almost always shot on a set as far away as possible from the real thing. Ultimately, postcard pictures lack authenticity. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Laurel & Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland or the David Niven led Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Amongst this, however, were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger with their feature I Know Where I’m Going! Though the incomparable directing duo were made up of an English and a Hungarian, both men clearly had an affinity with Scotland, shooting two films there before, Powell’s The Edge of the World as well as the pairing’s The Spy in Black. Though none of these films had much involvement from any Scottish crew members, the directors insisted on shooting on locations and made use of some Scottish acting talent too such as John Laurie or Finlay Currie. 

I Know Where I’m Going! Follows Joan (Wendy Hiller), a stubborn English woman who knows exactly what she wants and just how to get it, as she sets out to travel and marry Sir Robert Bellinger, a wealthy, much older industrialist. On her way to his castle on the Isle of Kiloran, she finds herself stranded on Mull Island alongside Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and the rest of the islanders. Whilst there she learns to appreciate the islander’s ways and begins to have second thoughts.

The picture opens wonderfully with a very clever intertwining of the opening credits and a brief introduction to the character and history of Joan. Ever since she was a child she knew exactly what she wanted. The narrator even quips that at the age of five she was writing to Father Christmas “I don’t want a doll and I don’t want a big red ball. What I want is a pair of silk stockings, and I mean silk not artificial.” A nice touch from the directors is the addition that though she always got what she wanted it was not simply handed to her. Though she wished for silk stockings at the age of five she had to wait to receive them at the age of twelve. They were artificial too. In the first full scene then, where Joan meets with her father to tell him she is getting married, it should come as no shock to the audience that she simply does not acknowledge her fathers shock nor his objections. Furthermore, there appears to be no question of her father coming to give her away or even be a guest at his own daughter's wedding. Instead, Joan is whisking herself off with little care for her father - the man who could never get her what she wanted - to be with Sir Robert Bellinger - the man who can give her everything she wants and more.

Within only six minutes of screentime we are completely aware of the type of woman Joan is, or the woman she claims to be, that is. Things start to go awry the moment she crosses the border between England and Scotland, falling asleep on the train and almost missing her changeover to another train. Things only get worse from there as she arrives on Mull and the fog forbids her from crossing to Kiloran. From the moment she steps foot on Mull, however, we begin to fall in love with the island, just as Joan does too. Powell & Pressburger’s insistence that the film primarily be shot on location allows for some beautiful visuals which sweep us up in the moment and whisk us away with the fog, leaving us floating over the island as we watch the story unfold.

Joan’s first day on Mull.

The original 1947 New York Times review of the picture described Joan and Torquil as “normal and mature human beings and their experiences are far from spectacular. But they are intensely interesting people in their own quiet way.” Despite the deeply human depiction of the two leads, the two find themselves wrapped up in a mystical fairytale, one with century-long family curses, fabled local tales such as the legend of Corryvrecken and of course, love. 

Ultimately, what makes I Know Where I’m Going! The film that it is, is the masterfully written screenplay. Powell & Pressburger are remembered for their eye for gorgeous visuals but their writing ability is just as magnificent. Throughout the film numerous themes and subplots are intricately woven together to craft a wonderfully layered story. This is most clear in the culmination of the film, an exhilarating sequence in which Joan, Torquil and a young islander attempt to sail from Mull to Kiloran in particularly bad weather, eventually leading them to the Corryvrecken whirlpool. Not only does the sequence lay bare the characters of Joan and Torquil, bringing their individual stories together in a satisfying way, but it allows Powell and Pressburger to present the film's thoughts on love and materialism in a thrilling climax. It’s a scene in which you can practically feel the crashing of the waves, hear the whining of the wind and smell the rain. In every way but literal, the film is alive.

Filming locations of I Know Where I’m Going! Including the Correyvreckan whirlpool.

It may not be a truly Scottish film but the clear respect that the filmmakers have for the culture of the people and the beauty in which they shoot the island lends it a sense of authenticity which could not often be found from the postcard pictures of the time. 

I Know Where I’m Going! May not be the most accomplished film of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s partnership, thanks in part to its placement in their filmography, preceding three of their greatest films; A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Many still hold it in high regard, however, with brilliant filmmakers such as Ari Aster and D.A. Pennebaker including it in their top ten films of all time lists and with Martin Scorsese going as far as to say "I reached the point of thinking there were no more masterpieces to discover, until I saw I Know Where I'm Going!" 

Frankly, it’s easy to see why. Just as Joan finds herself under the spell of the island, we find ourselves under the spell of the masterful directing duo that is Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, whisked away by their excellent storytelling and marvellous visuals, I Know Where I’m Going! lingers on the mind long after the credits have rolled, allowing it to be remembered from generation to generation, just like the greatest fairy tales ever told.

I Know Where I’m Going! Is screening at The Hippodrome on the 5th, 6th and 9th of November as a part of Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, a season celebrating the works of the masterful filmmaking duo. Also screening as part of the season are The Red Shoes, A Spy in Black and The Edge of the World.

Article written by Mark Carnochan. Mark is a film and theatre critic residing in Edinburgh and specialising in Scottish filmmaking, comedy and horror. His work can be found via The Film Magazine, Broadwayworld or via @MarkJurassic on X.


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