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I Know Where I’m Going! A Powell and Pressburger Classic Returns to the BFI

By Minna Church

“When Joan was only one year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right? Left? No, straight on. […] She’s 25 now and in one thing she’s never changed. She still knows where she’s going.”

Still taken from I Know Where I’m Going!, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Image: BFI.

This opening narration introduces the audience to Joan Webster, protagonist of the 1945 romantic-comedy I Know Where I’m Going! The introductory narration lasts a total of two minutes and twenty-four seconds, but in this limited time, the audience witnesses Joan transform from baby to adult woman. Mere minutes later, the main dramatic tension is established: Joan is leaving her father and life in Manchester to travel to the fictional Isle of Killoran in Scotland to marry Sir Robert Berringer, “one of the wealthiest men in England”. Her desire to do this takes her on a journey in both literal and metaphorical terms. Far from a time-specific spout of wartime propaganda or escapist frivolity, I Know Where I’m Going! (IKWIG!) is a crucial demonstration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ability to express wartime anxieties, ranging from gender to nationhood, through a visual language that has delighted audiences, both in 1945 and in the present age. A major restoration of the film has been undertaken ahead of the season, Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, to elevate the film to the recognition of other technicolour pictures by The Archers (the official title of their production company).

Why now? For head curator Robin Baker, the programme’s aim is to revitalise public interest in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and reiterate their position as “bold, subversive, and iconoclastic” innovators of British cinema. Theirs was a creative partnership that spanned twenty-four films and over thirty years, creating many canonised classics of twentieth century British cinema, such as A Matter of Life and Death (homaged in 2008 by Aardman animation studios in Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death), and The Red Shoes (the inspiration for Kate Bush’s 1993 album of the same name). Therefore, the programme is intended to introduce younger audiences to their work and exhibit the influences their narrative styles and visual language has had on a breadth of professional creatives. For a thorough and inspiring analysis of Powell and Pressburger’s myriad of influences on modern culture, I encourage the viewing of ‘The Immortal Cinema of Powell and Pressburger: BFI video essay’ published to the BFI’s YouTube channel on 16 October 2023. One of the strengths of the programme lies in the BFI’s use of social media to provide additional material and supplement the film screenings with an exhibition at British Film Institute (BFI) Southbank, and interviews with fans of the partnership, such as a Q&A with choreographer Matthew Bourne and a screening of his reinterpretation of the drama.

Still taken from I Know Where I'm Going!, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Image: BFI.

Now let us return to Joan on her journey to Killoran. IKWIG! (1945) is close to celebrating its eightieth birthday. Unlike the technicolour epics of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the film is anchored within the contemporary conflict of The Second World War. It is shot in black and white and references characters on leave from service. Overtly, greed and the pursuit of materialism are critiqued whereas rural life and traditional customs championed. Joan is the conduit for this message: she begins the film unwaveringly self-assured and materialistic. The first scene with dialogue is a dinner between Joan, adorned in a luxurious cheetah fur hat and bag, and her father, a bank manager, who expresses concern about being seen at such a lavish establishment during the war. Joan’s fiancé, Sir Robert Bellinger, is the wealthy capitalist of a chemical engineering firm, who rents the entirety of the Isle of Killoran with the frivolous ambition of putting a swimming pool in an environment surrounded by Loches. Ultimately, Joan chooses to reject the marriage and comfort she thought she wanted after almost dying in an attempt to reach the island during a storm. Depressingly to a modern audience, this revelation does mean she ends up in the arms of another man. As such, Joan’s character appears as the archetypal ‘New Woman’, a middle-class social climber who rejects the authority of her patriarch in the pursuit of greater materialistic gain. However, Powell and Pressburger subvert this stereotype by affording Joan the character study she deserves, in humorous and beautiful ways. Urban environments are presented as the corrupting force, as indicated in an early surrealist scene during Joan’s train journey. She dreams of her wedding day and envisages a priest ordaining her and an invisible spouse, while money pours from above. The priest asks, “Do you Joan Webster take Consolidated Chemical Industries to be your lawful wedded husband?” It is the whistle of the train which responds affirmatively. By comparison, when Joan is away from urbanism, the landscape and people of rural Scotland enable clarity and the introspective realisation of one’s desires. Ruined castles and the ocean are humanised by myths, and Scottish customs like the Gaelic language and Cèilidh dances provide a humble and sincere demonstration of life that Joan has never encountered before.

Still taken from I Know Where I'm Going!, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Image: BFI.

A famous face introduced the film at BFI Southbank, albeit via pre-recorded video. It was Martin Scorsese, long-time admirer of the duo’s work, and active public cheerleader for their legacy. He cites the Archer’s films, particularly I Know Where I’m Going! and The Red Shoes, as key inspirations in his own work. After watching the former, the influence of Powell and Pressburger on Scorsese appears obvious. In both cases, narration is crucial in advising the viewer on a character’s past, (“When Joan was only one year old, she already knew where she was going”/ “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”, Goodfellas, 1990). Both create films that centralise a character’s internal struggle, both within themselves and a wider community, (a notable example is Taxi Driver, 1976). Finally, both regularly critique upbringing and the pursuit of socio-economic comfort. The introduction of the film by such a famous and revered film professional ensures that these comparisons are made and demonstrates the relevance of watching Powell and Pressburger films now.

According to the BFI’s website, this is the most ambitious archive cinema programme since The Genius of Hitchcock in 2012. The restoration of the film and the wider season programmed by the BFI aims to reinstate the cinematic duo into public memory. The print date of this review sadly coincides with the end date of the screenings of I Know Where I’m Going! at BFI Southbank. On Thursday 2nd November 2023, the final three screenings are 14:30, 18:15 and 20:40. If the reader has time, I encourage you to go and see one. Failing that, the film is available for free rental via the BFI’s player website. Moreover, the season continues with many other screenings of Powell and Pressburger’s work.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger is on until 31 December 2023 and features regular screenings at the BFI and a major exhibition, Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror.


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