United Kingdom, 1949
Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson
Directed by Robert Hamer
Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price), Tenth Duke of Chalfont, sits alone in his prison cell in Edwardian England, on the day before he is to be hanged; putting pen to paper, he documents the strange set of events that have led both to his title and to his imminent fate. Louis' mother, daughter to the seventh Duke of Chalfont, was utterly disowned by her family after eloping with an Italian tenor; forced to raise young Louis alone after the singer's untimely death, she attempted to reconcile with her family a number of times but was rebuffed. After her own passing, Louis was determined to obtain vengeance against the D'Ascoynes, who treated his mother so cruelly and declined even to acknowledge Louis' own existence. Though from a disowned and disgraced branch of the family, Louis was still ninth in line from the dukedom, and if the eight D'Ascoynes in front of him (all played by Alec Guinness) were to die, both the title and Chalfont Castle would be his. Armed only with his wits and a genealogical chart of the family, Louis sets about reclaiming his birthright... one D'Ascoyne at a time.
Ealing Studios, a British institution that claims to be the oldest motion picture studio in the world, produced a series of films between 1947 and 1955 that have collectively become known as the Ealing Comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets, a black and bone-dry comedy about murder among the noble class, is perhaps the best known of these films, at least in the United States, and is considered a signature example of the postwar Ealing spirit of exuberant rebellion against authority and bureaucracy. Equal parts literate social satire and mild slapstick, Kind Hearts and Coronets appears decades ahead of its time both in its dark subject matter and its nihilistic cheer, and surely remains every bit as enjoyable as it ever was.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably best known for being the film in which Alec Guinness plays eight roles. Guinness, whom we saw in 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai, was largely unknown to film audiences at the time, and to a generation used to Sir Alec Guinness' roles of authority and heroism (in the Star Wars pictures, if nowhere else), it might be a bit odd to watch him immerse himself in such droll shenanigans. As the Duke, the Banker, the Parson, the General, the Admiral, young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne, young Henry D'Ascoyne, and yes, Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne the suffragist, Guinness plays eight very different characters who are nonetheless all dimensions of that most British of archetypes, immortalized in a 1970 episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus: the Upper-class Twit. The tight-assed, inbred Twit, a monied mediocrity who was assigned to the noble class at birth through a quirk of genetics and has done nothing since to indicate that he deserves it, is a rich vein of comic potential, and Guinness manages to bring eight separate Twits to life without descending to parody or unduly villainizing them. Kind Hearts and Coronets is a treat for anyone, and those who are inclined to dismiss it because of its age, or its title (from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson) or its sheer English-ness... well, they're the ones who probably need to see it most of all.
Points to ponder:
- With a few exceptions, the D'Ascoynes are for the most part thoroughly pleasant individuals who haven't really done anything bad to anyone. Yet we laugh at their deaths (the murder of Henry, the photographer, is easily one of the funniest scenes I've ever encountered in any movie) and side with their killer. What does this signify, if anything? And what's it like to come upon this kind of comic attitude in a 55-year-old black-and-white film from England, as opposed to, say, a Quentin Tarantino film?