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Kind Hearts and Coronets

August 30, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Director: Robert Hamer
Actors: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood

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Synopsis: Vengeful orphan, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), sets about assuming the birthright denied him and his mother, by murdering all the heirs (Alec Guinness) to a Duchy.

Review: A very playful idea of “Englishness” lies at the heart of this delectable Ealing Comedy, detailing the homicidal journey taken by a disenfranchised orphan (a drier than dry Dennis Price) as he attempts to assert his birthright as heir to the Duchy of Chalfont. This ingenious comedy, both in its subject matter (with multiple references to class division, and the ludicrous pageantry associated with positions of privilege) and sensibility (impeccable social graces smothering the darkest of impulses amid a perpetual undercurrent of riotously straight-faced irony), lend the film its beautifully-judged tone.

It’s also fascinating to appreciate how this film, over sixty years old now and born of themes and traditions which extend even deeper into Britain’s socio-cultural past, is in almost all ways more modern, daring and sophisticated than today’s mediocre British cinematic output. Assuming a high-level of audience intelligence, the film riffs expertly on ideas of social history, morality, literariness and narrative form. Alec Guinness’ memorable turn as all eight members of the doomed D’Ascoyne clan (encompassing turns cross-gender, cross-vocation and cross-generation), crystallises exactly why this film is so magically exquisite. Thanks to sophistication of performance and direction, Guinness’s multi-character turns somehow appear dramatically organic through non-demonstration of character and the relatively small amount of screen-time his personae are accorded. Talk of American cinema usurping this story and utilising those kings of method-demonstration and comic mugging (Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams respectively) only underlines the gratitude one should have for this inimitable comic gem from British cinema of yonder. (May 2008)

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