I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Wendy Hiller, now virtually unknown to anyone but film buffs, was one of those periodic Brits (they were common in her day, but Helen Mirren, for instance, continued the practice well into ours) who preferred the stage to the screen. In the case of the actors who went that route, I never thought the best of the men–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson–were much of a loss, fine as they sometimes were.
The never-were performances of the women, however–Hiller, MIrren, Vivien Leigh– amount to a cultural gap.
Hiller was perhaps the most devoted stage-hound of them all. She was in some Hollywood productions, but there were no West Coast sojourns. She forever preferred the West End and was thus content to be the first British actress nominated for an Oscar in a British film (1938’s Pygmalion, her second film, where she was a luminous and definitive Eliza Doolittle and for which she likely would have won by acclaim if the film had been an American production, such as the following year’s Gone With the Wind), star in a mere 21 films over a 55-year career, and go for long periods without appearing on film at all.
I Know Where I’m Going, which captures perhaps her greatest performance (I say perhaps only because I haven’t seen them all), was only her fourth film. It came four years after her second and seven years before her fifth. I suppose if you are only going to do something once in a decade you might as well be indelible.
it took me a long time to get around to this one and Hiller, not the film’s famous writer/director team, who in my handful of brief encounters elsewhere have seemed more impressed by their own eccentricities than anyone who isn’t an Anglophile could be, was the main attraction.
This was my second viewing, and it was lovely and romantic and breathtaking all over again with the added touch that I got past the magic sparks Hiller and Roger Livesey keep throwing off just enough to notice that it’s also one of the great weather-and-landscape movies. Coming from 1945–a year that still has powerful resonance for anyone with a sense of history (let alone History)–the two leads serve as literal embodiments of the national character, a character that is now lost (to the world anyway, I can’t speak for how the Brits feel about themselves).
I can’t recall any other film where True Love is so closely tied to, and complicated by, not only to traditional notions of honor, but the very landscape and its most brutal elements. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hiller’s attempt to reach a remote Scottish island where her conveniently rich and doltish fiance awaits and Livesey’s attempts to “help” her. She’s continually cut off by a series of obstacles–howling gales, rising seas, whirlpools. obstinance thicker than the Scottish accents–and finally risks her life, and those of others, not so much to reach her fiance, as to get away from Livesey, who has begun to suspect as much, but dares not hope she’ll act on either his wishes or hers, and dares even less to smash his sterling character by actively pursuing a woman who is spoken for.
Both characters–and both actors–reside within a mindset which firmly accepts that, if there will always be an England, it will be because people like themselves will finally do the right thing. Just what that right thing is, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and, even if you aren’t surprised, the final scene is still likely to thrill anyone harboring a trace of romance in these days when no dates ever resonate but we simply drag endlessly and remorselessly on, toward the place where England is no more.
Which makes Hiller’s supporting-but-still-indelible presence in A Man for All Seasons--seven years after her previous film—all the more poignant in hindsight. Filmed barely twenty years later, set four hundred years earlier, she might be fifty years older.
There’s a reason they call it acting I guess.
The England that would always be is just coming into being on the screen, mid-wifed by the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More over the matter of Anne Boleyn (defined variously by Robert Shaw, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, all proud products of the England that would always be and was just beginning to be no more). But while all the more famous characters are products of their time and breeding (it’s among the best cast and acted movies within the realm of human ken), it’s Hiller’s Alice More–illiterate, intemperate, unromantic, sensible, everything her earlier embodiment of the National Character was not–who knows best what’s really at stake. It’s as if she’s the only one who sees that an England built on Henry’s sand, rather than her husband’s rock, will be doomed to come a cropper in the end, even if the end will come out the other side of an Empire upon which, as the old saw had it, the sun never set, and, as a late-arriving wag riposted, the blood never dried.
The end, that is, that the Wendy Hiller who marched to bagpipes toward a curse-ridden castle and whatever fate awaited her in the final frames of I Know Where I’m Going would just live to see….and perhaps mourn.