A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Erotica is in the eye and – more to the point – the mind of the beholder and I imagine that the definitions of ‘erotic’ vary as dramatically as the definitions of ‘middle-aged’ or ‘good taste’, depending entirely on who’s doing the defining. For me however the more clothes that come off, the less erotic I find it. The seething, unrequited passions of Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey in Brief Encounter carry far more sexual charge than any amount of artfully lit coupling and groping.
But it’s not those snatched moments of middle class yearning on Carnforth Station that are the subject of this piece – although Brief Encounter comes an honourable second in my list of ‘Most Erotic films’. No, my drama of choice is played out much further north – in the Western Isles, to be exact – and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that for much of the time the protagonists remain resolutely swathed in gabardine, tweed and oilskins … and sometimes all three at once.
The collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger produced some of the most iconic films of the 1940s – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus – but none has acquired quite the devoted following of 1945’s I Know Where I’m Going!
The story is very simple: It’s the middle of the Second World War and ambitious, social-climbing Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) has landed a prize catch in the shape of Sir Robert Bellinger, Chairman of Consolidated Chemical Industries. They are to be married on small island of Kiloran, just off the west coast of Scotland, where Sir Robert is safely sitting out the war and of which she believes him to be the Laird. When she arrives on the nearby island of Mull, however, the weather has closed in and she finds herself unable to reach Kiloran. She is stranded on the pier at Port Erraig, which is where she first meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), on leave from the Navy and also hoping to cross to the island.
Thrown together by circumstance, it isn’t long before the pair are striking sparks off each other as they wait for the storm to blow itself out. On the surface, they’re chalk and cheese, but it becomes very obvious very quickly that a profound attraction is being kindled between them, and to complicate matters for Joan still further it transpires that Torquil is the true, but impoverished, Laird of Kiloran, and is merely renting the property to Sir Robert to generate some income during his absence on active service.
Increasingly desperate to salvage her carefully laid plans to become Lady Bellinger, and all too aware that she is falling in love with Torquil, Joan eventually takes a foolhardy risk which endangers not only her own life but also that of a young fisherman, Kenny, and Torquil himself.
Offering Kenny more money than he’s ever seen in his life, she persuades him to take her across to Kiloran, even though his infinitely more experienced and savvy father (the ever-reliable Finlay Currie) won’t even countenance it. Learning of her plan, Torquil attempts to dissuade her and then, when he fails, feels obliged to go with them. The weather worsens, the engine floods and the little boat is dragged inexorably towards Corryvreckan, the notorious whirlpool between the islands of Jura and Scarba.
The whirlpool is, of course, a not remotely subtle metaphor for Joan and Torquil’s tumultuous emotions, but it is in fact the climax of a nuanced film in which the sexual tension is cranked up by degrees through a series of beautifully realized scenes which, although not unique in films of the time were at the very least unusual. From the brooding presence of the Moy Castle, over the threshold of which no male MacNeil may step for fear of the ancient curse laid upon it, to the pivotal ceilidh where Torquil literally pins Joan to the loft ladder – the film bristles with unforgettable, and loaded, imagery.
Of all the memorable scenes in the film however, it is probably Torquil trying to argue Joan out of her wrong-headed attempt to reach Kiloran that lodges in most people’s minds, because what audiences of the time did NOT expect to see was their hero grabbing the heroine by the arm, throwing her to the ground and then hauling her up by her lapels to shout at her – especially not a hero being played by Roger Livesey – solid, dependable Roger Livesey.
Interestingly, and possibly tellingly, the role of Torquil MacNeil was originally destined for James Mason, then riding a wave of popularity after his runaway success in The Man in the Grey, but for reasons that are not recorded he withdrew a few weeks before filming was due to start and the number two choice – Livesey – stepped in.
In the extraordinarily tense scene in the stairwell, Torquil physically assaults and verbally abuses Joan, so desperate is he to prevent her from risking her life. He is motivated by love but it manifests itself as violence. It’s only when the camera cuts to his anguish that we see what is driving him to such extreme lengths.
Roger Livesey was a tall, softly spoken actor of apparently effortless range and depth who started his professional life in the theatre. Oozing integrity he was, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the natural choice for Torquil, and it’s now almost impossible to imagine James Mason in the role – but at the time, it was casting against type, as indeed was that of Wendy Hiller who was already a heavyweight theatre actress known for her work with George Bernard Shaw. Prior to I Know Where I’m Going! she had made just three films and showed no interest at all in becoming a ‘film star’, so averse was she to the hype and glamour Hollywood.
Just as Torquil was originally intended as a role for James Mason, Joan’s was intended for Deborah Kerr, but at the last moment she couldn’t free herself from her existing commitments– and so it was almost by accident that Livesey and Hiller ended up together igniting the screen with a very British form of sexual chemistry.
They don’t, however, have the monopoly on it, because in the wings is Pamela Brown, as Catriona MacLaine.
Catriona and Torquil, it is implied, were more than good friends at some point in their lives. She arrives in the story like a force of nature … outlined unforgettably against the skyline with her wolfhounds.
She is the antithesis of the fashionably dressed Joan, all wild hair and swirling clothes. The camera absolutely loves her – and the easy companionship between Catriona and Torquil speaks volumes about the nature of their former relationship, in spite of the fact that it is never mentioned specifically. (In fact in the original script it WAS made plain, but Emeric Pressburger was unhappy with the suggestion, and so it was cut.) Catriona, although a secondary role, is nevertheless central to the plot, because she is the only person who can tell Torquil what he is unable to see for himself … that Joan is fleeing to Kiloran not to marry her industrialist, but to escape her growing feelings for him.
The film simply oozes sex. It motivates all the major characters and a few of the supporting ones, it informs their actions and it drives the plot. And yet, only once is it mentioned – and then only obliquely. When young Kenny’s fiancée is begging Joan not to make him attempt the crossing to Kiloran, she says:
“Some folks there are who can’t be waiting a day to satisfy their passions …”
… a fairly shocking declaration from a young woman in a ‘family’ film in the 1940s.
I Know Where I’m Going! is part love story, part fable and part farewell to a vanishing way of life in the Western Highlands and Islands. There is a happy ending, but it’s touched with melancholy. In an atmospheric scene at the end of the film (which is also a masterclass in micro-expressions from Livesey), Torquil finally enters Moy Castle to read the ‘curse’ for himself and as he reads, we hear the sound of three approaching pipers … leading his destiny to him.
In the whole film there is just one passionate kiss, no ‘bedroom scenes’ and not a single heaving bosom or rippling torso, but I Know Where I’m Going! packs more erotic punch than a whole cartload of ‘X’ certificate movies – and what’s more, it’s all discreetly wrapped in gabardine.
Recommended reading: I Know Where I’m Going! – by Pam Cook. BFI Film Classics. 2002. ISBN: 0-85170-814-5. 80pp.
If you’re looking for a DVD of the film, I can recommend the Criterion Collection’s. The digital transfer was supervised by the original cinematographer, Erwin Hillier and it also includes a clutch of fascinating extras as well as an audio description.