I Know Where I'm Going! is the seventh co-production from the English filmmaker Michael Powell and the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger. Its relatively quaint story contains obvious similarities in plot and ideals to Local Hero, but it feels atypical for the "Archers," as they're known by 1945.
The directors were brought together as war raged through Europe to create films---some honest-to-goodness masterpieces including 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp---that were sometimes-subtle-sometimes-not anti-Nazi propaganda. Their quick pace---they created something new annually at this time---meant the end of the war was the end of an era. Like many European citizens, fatigue seems to have called them toward something simple. This is all a long way of saying that I Know Where I'm Going!, while universal, is nonetheless a product of a very specific time and mindset.
Unlike Local Hero, its primary protagonist is a woman, Joan Webster [played by Wendy Hiller]. She's from the big city---interestingly, Manchester---and is on her way to fulfill her destiny: marry a very wealthy older gentleman on the fictional and remote Isle of Kiloran.
Weather delays her journey, and she finds herself stranded one leg away from her destination. On the Isle of Mull, she gets to know both the locals and a group of similarly stranded naval officers, including Torquil MacNeil [Roger Livesey]. Their mutual attraction is almost immediate, but Joan knows where she’s going, and it’s not home with Torquil … right?
This film simply would not have been made pre-war. It took a half-decade of national devastation in the United Kingdom for artists and, in turn, the public to embrace the idealism I Know Where I’m Going! espouses. Rejecting materialism isn’t uncommon in films today, regardless of genre, but the seeds of this attitude were born out of the ashes of destruction. I Know Where I’m Going! resonated [and resonates still] because those who lived at the time of its release knew the potential devastation at the hyper-extreme end of its ideological inverse.
Relatively recent titles like The Proposal, The Descendants, and even Netflix’s original release Tallulah are all examples of films that ask the same questions as both I Know Where I’m Going! and Local Hero---namely “Am I on the right path?” and “Is there more out there than just money and opportunity?” All of these films also feature subplots, secondary characters, and side trips that help bring the seemingly obvious answers into focus.
In I Know Where I’m Going!, it’s the Scottish countryside itself, Joan’s gorgeous [both physically and spiritually] interpretation of a traditional Gaelic ballad, and the film’s relaying of Torquil’s century-long family curse. For a comedy, there are moments of intense existential gravity. That the Archers are able to walk such a tightrope is a real treat, even if the film lacks the hyper-stylized glory of their “major” titles, like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, each to come as Europe once again stretched her wings and sought new forms of creative expression.
I suppose the inverse of these films would be the many variations on country boys and girls finding their way to the big city and struggling before they eventually make it, but even those titles [Elf, as weird as it sounds, comes immediately to mind] generally succeed because their protagonists find enough people in the big city to convert to their way of thinking. Cinematically speaking, local flavor and community trump urban anonymity, it seems, and both Local Hero and I Know Where I’m Going! are exemplary, even model cases of the former.