“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.”
Such is the laconic lament uttered by Dennis Price in his guise as Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts & Coronets, the Ealing Comedy Classic. Louis is the peerless peer (oft by his own hand) who methodically bumps off a variety of relatives (all played by Sir Alec Guinness) to secure a dukedom. In light of the 70th Anniversary re-release by StudioCanal, The Chap felt that a review of the film itself was in order. I have personally been enamoured with Kind Hearts & Coronets since my father recommended its charms to me as suitable entertainment for a young lad on an otherwise unprepossessing Bank Holiday.
Of course any film that has had the temerity not to have been made within the last twelve months will face charges that it is ‘dated’. Kind Hearts & Coronets is no exception, being released scarcely a year after the foundation of the National Health Service (a service which, had it been available, a number of protagonists would have found use for). Indeed, it has been observed by fellows of this esteemed publication that the following missive is displayed at the outset of its recent re-release:
“Please note that the language used in Kind Hearts and Coronets reflects historical attitudes which audiences may find offensive. For reasons of historical accuracy we have opted to present the film as it was originally screened.”
For those familiar with the work in question it is not an unreasonable supposition (though it is a supposition I grant you) that the admonishment of StudioCanal refers to the use of a racial epithet within proceedings. A caveat they may feel is required as such language is (rightly) not commonly in use in films which carry a ‘U’ rating. For my own pounds, shillings and pence, I believe the tack taken by StudioCanal was the right one – that of reproducing the film uncut but caveating the production with a contextual note.
The initial draw for myself to watch Kind Hearts & Coronets was being informed that Alec Guinness possessed the audacity to portray eight different roles (nine if you include sitting for a portrait). Guinness remains convincing and watchable throughout be he a tedious vicar, militant suffragist, or just a pompous member of the landed gentry. Guinness seizes each vignette with an assured grip and it is only through being shuffled off this mortal coil that he deigns to release his hold.
It is of note that as a rule Guinness proffers not mere grotesques: Young Henry the photographer is an amiable sort (albeit with a predilection for the local pub) for instance while Lord Ascoyne the Banker shows a degree of kindness to Louis. Having said that the righteous disposal of Young Ascoyne D’Ascoyne who consistently demonstrates an unbecoming boorishness and caddishness must come as a source of delight for all those who have been employed in the service sector.
Guinness is not alone in turning in the performance of a lifetime (or eight); the sulphuric smoulderings of Joan Greenwood’s Sibella are a delight. When Louis asserts that she is “playing with fire” her laconic rejoinder, “At least it warms me” is delivered with the conviction of a Shakespearean thesp and the seductive sibilance of a siren. Sibella’s coquettishness and machinations and the adroit transition between the twain are a sight to behold and owe much to Greenwood’s performance.
Through it all of course is Dennis Price’s portrayal of Louis Mazzini. Machiavellian in the extreme and with a flair for the dramatic (explosives, poison, weirs…) his methods of disposal surpass those of Seen (or some such) and other feeble efforts. Louis’ wielding of words is more stiletto than shillelagh. In response to being informed that his rival paramour for the affections of Sibella had stated that he “wished to improve his mind” Louis’ delicious rejoinder merely observes, “He has room to do so”. Louis is the consummate gentleman assassin be it with lethal force to the body or spirit.
It would, of course, be most remiss for a review in The Chap not to discuss the sartorial triumphs on display within Kind Hearts & CoronetsKind Hearts & Coronets garners its title – Valerie Hobson’s contribution as Edith is alas oft overlooked, the more ostentatious performances catching the eye more readily. Yet her glacial splendour and serenity belies a degree of comic timing and delivery, which ensures that she elicits some of the most resonant laughs in a comedy awash with such moments. Her chastisement of her former coachman turned landlord as to “the amount of drinking” that occurs on his premises should be required viewing for all those with an interest in the art of humour.
The production values are of their time and render a degree of charm to proceedings. While my love of the film remains unalloyed, even I can’t quite be persuaded that the heartfelt graveyard scene could perhaps have been filmed on location rather than in front of a decidedly matte matte-painted cyclorama. However, this new print from StudioCanal has been lovingly restored, frame by frame, bringing all the sharpness, scratch-free detail one could possibly wish for.
The fall of the house of D’Ascoyne remains an object d’art of coruscating beauty and should be treated as such. I would urge all those reading to secure a copy forthwith for their own edification and to ensure that a black-and-white comedy holds its own against more vulgar efforts. I would go on but feel that any further adulation at the expense of lesser cinematic efforts would be cruel and much like the 10th Duke of Chalfont “I am not naturally callous.”
Long may it never be remade.
Reviewed by David Hamblin
A West End theatre production, adapted by Stephen Fry, of Kind Hearts and Coronets is being planned. Details of the project may be viewed here and we shall keep readers posted on any developments.
Kind Hearts and Coronets on DVD may be purchased from here