Producers-Writers-Directors – The Archers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) – 1945 – UK – Cert. PG – 92m
A London banker’s daughter’s determined to marry her wealthy fiancé on an Hebridean island has reckoned without the weather and other local factors preventing her from doing so – engaging romantic drama is out in UK cinemas on Friday, October 20th while major season Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds Of Powell + Pressburger opens Monday, October 16th at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player
You wouldn’t expect a film which is essentially a romantic comedy to open with its leading lady at age one, but that’s exactly what The Archers do here. Joan crawls, going (as the male voice over would have it) neither right nor left but straight on. By age five the male voice has her asking Santa for silk stockings (real, not artificial, a request that will have chimed with austerity-pressed, British audiences in 1945 after six years of war), by 12 she’s the one schoolgirl getting a lift home in the milk van. She’s accustomed to getting her own way and by her mid-twenties Joan (Wendy Hiller) is surprising her banker father, who she has wrapped around her little finger, with the news that she is going to marry the lucrative Consolidated Chemical Industries, specifically their ageing owner Sir Robert Bellinger.
For the wedding, she takes the train from London to Glasgow, followed by various types of transportation to the Isle of Kiloran in the Hebrides. The journey and the wedding to follow are planned down to the finest detail; however, she’s reckoned without one thing: the weather. A local sea crossing is required to get there. Initially, heavy rain prevents her crossing; going to bed, she prays for wind to blow the rain away. Her prayer is granted, but the wind proves so strong in its own right that as well as blowing the rain away, it renders passage to the isle impossible…
The kind and not unattractive Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) – later to be revealed as the true Laird of Kiloran (as opposed to her fiancé who has the wherewithal to rent the island but doesn’t actually own it) – takes her under his wing as she’s stranded at the nearest harbour village to Kiloran, finding her temporary accommodation with dog owner Catriona Potts (Pamela Brown).
In an industry where the director of a film is usually regarded as the person who pulls the whole together, The Archers – the umbrella name under which Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made their films – were something of an anomaly. Broadly speaking Powell was a director and Pressburger a screenwriter, but once they worked together, those categories blurred. Each recognised the value of the other and they collaborated on almost 20 films together.
By 1945, they had spent the six years of the war working together on a slightly larger number of films, many recognised as among their strongest, and were at the height of the creative powers as a duo. Here, they take an ordinary sounding romcom plot and stuff it full with a compelling collection of offbeat characters, bizarre situations and local details.
IKWIG’s side plots include a retired Colonel (C.W.R. Knight) searching for his escaped golden eagle, and a young couple Bridie (Margot Fitzsimons) and Kenny (Murdo Morrison) who want to marry but lack Joan’s middle class financial means. Towards the narrative’s end, Kenny is lured into helping Joan make the crossing in treacherous conditions, a situation only prevented from turning out badly by the intervention of Torquil. There’s a splendid celidh, and a phone box which, through the vicissitudes of local politics, has ended up halfway up a hill by a waterfall so that no-one using it can hear the caller on the other end properly.
Erwin Hillier’s simple yet highly effective black and white cinematography makes great use of figures in shadow looming out of the background, not to shock so much as to create mysterious atmosphere as the plans of the banker’s daughter become thwarted by intransigent local conditions. The Archers knew how to cast films too, the feisty Wendy Hiller being superb as the determined yet blocked young woman and Roger Livesey perfect as the romantic lead from whom the heroine doesn’t realise, for most of the film, that she’s running away. A precocious pre-teen bookworm way down the cast list is played by future pop and screen star Petula Clark.
There are many other Productions of the Archers which might, on first viewing, have a lot more going for them than this one. Yet IKWIG is like a fine wine, and the more you get to know their films, the more this particular one impresses. It isn’t just an excellent entry point into the duo’s wider body of films (it’s not the only one, by any means – there are many equally viable others); after you’ve seen quite a few of their films several times over, you might possibly start to wonder if this is the finest film they ever made. Whether or not that’s actually the case, and whether you’re seeing it for the first time or revisiting it for the umpteenth, it’s undeniable that this has lost none of its charm in the intervening years since it was made. In short, and you’ll know this if you’ve seen the film before but not if you haven’t, you’re in for a rare treat.
“i know where I’m going!” is back out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, October 20th; a major season Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds Of Powell + Pressburger opens Monday, October 16th at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player.