For Christmas, a thoughtful friend, knowing my love of ancestral Scotland, gave me the DVD of a movie called “I Know Where I’m Going!” which I’d never seen (or heard of, to be honest). I finally watched it the other night. What a pleasure — on many levels. This is the tale of a headstrong young woman, Joan Webster, flawlessly played by Dame Wendy Hiller, who knows from childhood exactly what she wants from life and how to achieve it. As the film begins, she tells her father over dinner that she is going on a trip to the Hebrides, where she is to be married on a remote island to an older, enormously wealthy industrialist. This is news to poor old Dad, who sputters, “You can’t marry Consolidated Chemical Industries!” to which she blithely replies, “Can’t I?” So off she goes on her perfectly arranged trip in a perfectly arranged train compartment with her perfectly packed luggage — including her bridal gown.
She arrives on the Isle of Mull to take a ferry to the island where the ceremony will take place. And then the plans go awry. A gale wind arises, preventing the ferry from coming, and she is stuck on the rustic island. She meets the engaging Torquil MacNeil (the delightful Robert Livesey), a local laird who watches out for her, to her slightly amused disinterest. He shows her about Mull, introducing her to some of the people and their simple way of life, noting, in response to one of her observations, that they aren’t poor; they “just don’t have any money” — not at all like the man of her dreams (or schemes).
Determined to reach the wedding island despite the weather, she persuades a young man to take her, heedless of the risks, which include skirting an enormous marine whirlpool. MacNeil insists on going. Of course the weather gets worse, of course they are almost wrecked in the whirlpool. And yes, she throws over her original plan and stays to marry MacNeil.
It sounds so predictable. But it is utterly engaging, beautifully photographed, rich with the scenes of the incomparable Hebrides, which are glorious even in black and white (Michael Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger made the film in 1945, when there was a shortage of Technicolor stock), and so appealing in its ability to shatter the certainty with which the young Joan sallies forth.
Don’t we all so often set out with certainty when we embark on a journey, tickets and itineraries in hand, passports stamped, heads as full of expectations as our luggage is full of clothes? And yet, just as often, we experience sights, people and events that we could not have anticipated and that can become the most treasured memories of a trip. I love this movie because it captures that possibility, not just in the boundaries of a single trip, but within the very horizons of our lives.
I look forward to watching this enchanting movie again. In the excellent supplementary material, which includes color home footage of one of Powell’s outings to the Scottish isles, Martin Scorcese, a fan of Powell and Pressburger, is asked if he would make a new version. No, he says, because this one is “perfect.” I agree, and this will go on the shelf of beloved movies right next to my other favorite film about Scotland, the not-to-miss “Local Hero.”