Kind Hearts and Coronets

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UK, 1949

Director: Robert Hamer

Production: Ealing Studios; black and white, 35mm; running time: 106 minutes; length: 9529 feet. Released 1949. Filmed in England.

Producer: Michael Balcon; screenplay: Robert Hamer and John Dighton, from the novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman; photography: Douglas Slocombe; editor: Peter Tanner; music: Wolfgang Mozart.

Cast: Dennis Price (Louis Mazzini/Mazzini's father); Joan Greenwood (Sibella); Valerie Hobson (Edith); Alec Guinness (Ascoyne d'Ascoyne/Henry d'Ascoyne/Canon d'Ascoyne/Admiral d'Ascoyne/General d'Ascoyne/Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne/Lord d'Ascoyne/Ethelbert/the Old Duke); Audrey Fildes (Mrs. Mazzini); John Penrose (Lionel); Miles Malleson (Hangman); Clive Morton (Prison governor).

Award: Venice Film Festival, Best Scenography, 1949.



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* * *

Kind Hearts and Coronets is an Ealing Comedy in name only. True, it is a comedy, and it was produced by Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios. Even so, the film has little in common with its stablemates. Ealing comedies (with the exception of Mackendrick's) were cosy. Kind Hearts is callous, even cruel. The humour of Ealing comedies was generally warm, cheerful, and folksy; Kind Hearts is cool, ironic and witty. Sex, in Ealing comedies, was kept at a safe distance, and handled (if at all) with embarrassed jocularity; Kind Hearts includes scenes that carry a powerful erotic charge.

Hamer stated his intentions as: "Firstly, that of making a film not noticeably similar to any previously made in the English language. Secondly, that of using this English language, which I love, in a more varied and more interesting way. Thirdly, that of making a picture which paid no regard whatever to established, although not practised, moral convention." Much of the humour is indeed verbal, elegantly Wildean, carried by the hero's voice-over narration—yet always aptly counterpointed by the visual effects. The shape of the film is satisfyingly classic, a long flash-back. It opens with Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) in prison, condemned to death for a murder of which he is innocent, composing his memoirs, in which he recounts all the murders of which he is guilty. His mother, a member of the proud d'Ascoyne clan, had married an Italian singer; for this they disowned her, condemning her to poverty and eventual death. At her grave, Louis vows vengeance, and gradually eliminates every d'Ascoyne (all played by Alec Guinness) between himself and the dukedom.

Louis's narration serves as a unifying factor, effectively sustaining the tone of cool irony throughout the film. Cool—but not cold; there is a pervasive undercurrent of passion beneath the urbane wit, motivating Louis in his systematic slaughter, and surfacing both in the erotic passages with his mistress Sibella (Joan Greenwood), and in his embittered outburst before shooting the Duke, his final victim. The Duke, most repellent of the d'Ascoynes, has been decoyed by Louis into one of his own mantraps; but Louis, too, is caught in his own trap. In revenging himself on the d'Ascoynes for their heartlessness, he has become as heartless, cold and calculating as they.

But the film can readily be enjoyed without any such consideration of its serious undertones. Kind Hearts is very funny, wickedly subversive, and probably the finest black comedy the British cinema has every produced. It is certainly Hamer's masterpiece, a highly successful fusion of his dominant influences: Wildean comedy, and classic French cinema (notably, in this case, Sacha Guitry and the Renoir of La règle du jeu). The film made Alec Guinness's international reputation, and rapidly attained the status of a classic—which it has consistently maintained. Such polished excellence makes it even more regrettable that Hamer's masterpiece was also the last major film of his sadly blighted career.

—Philip Kemp