Nigel Watson reviews restored classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, showing in our cinema from Friday 5 to Thursday 11 July.
70 years after its first release this classic Ealing Studio film is still entertaining, imaginative and funny. Most of the comedy is derived from the imaginative manner the eccentric members of the D’Ascoyne family are bumped off one-by-one by Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, 10th Duke of Chalfont, played by Dennis Price. Yet, it also successfully carries deeper themes about society, status and repression.
‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ shows that we are all victims of our social and economic position. Louis certainly feels trapped by his circumstances and as a means of social climbing and revenge he takes to murder.
Louis is driven to gain a higher social position at any price because his mother was disinherited – she was guided by her heart rather than by the requirements and conventions of the family. Plus, he is rebuffed by Sibella who favours the more successful Lionel Holland. This leads Louis, in contrast to his mother, to cold heartedly calculate who will be a suitable wife.
For a film that was made so soon after the war it was brave to make a comedy about murder. Perhaps it shows how strongly the director felt about the unfair class system and reflects a similar underlying hatred of it that also brought about the later British socialist realist films. For example, in ‘Look Back In Anger’ (1959) and ‘Room At The Top’ (1958) young men cynically seek a greater social position. They are similar in that they all criticise the system but are perfectly happy to seek a high position so that they can maintain an unfair advantage over others.
Certainly when Louis begins to rise in social position he becomes as snobbish, or even more snobbish, than the members of his aristocratic family. Looking at a photograph of Sibella he reflects that she “was pretty enough in her suburban way…But her face would have looked rather out of place under a coronet.” Ouch!
What prevents ’Kind Hearts and Coronets’ from being so shocking is that we are shown Louis in prison at the beginning of the film so we know that he is being punished (even though it is indirectly) for the crimes we are shown in flashback. Also, the film is set in 1902, which means that we are distanced from present-day social realities.
Most accounts of Ealing comedies emphasise their eccentric characters, and cosy insularity. ’Kind Hearts and Coronets’ has a more vicious streak but in the end ‘natural’ justice (presumably) prevails and the Chalfonts get the last laugh.
Ian Green in his book ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ highlights the fact that Ealing comedies tend to invest their humour within an ‘impossible’ situation so that the ‘comic fantasy’ depends ‘on the logic that is then permitted to develop within it.’ It is a fantasy game that has no real social or political bite to it; indeed Ealing’s executive producer, Michael Balcon, intended ‘The comedies (to be)…a mild protest…’ not incitements or charters for revolutionary changes in society.
One complaint about the film was that it lacks ‘a visual style equal to its script’ according to critic/film director Lindsay Anderson. The same criticism was made by Henry Raynor, who claims that the visual wit ‘cried out for style and ingenuity.’
By 1964 the film was praised by ‘Films and Filming’ as one of the ‘Great Films of the Century’ by Alan Stanbrook who points out that considerable visual invention is used by director, Robert Hamer, to underline the wit of the narration and dialogue. For example, Stanbrook notes that a shot of empty chairs around the dining table in Chalfont Castle shows the murderous progress Louis is making. Often small pointers like the ‘Warning’ sign on the weir where Ascoyne D’Ascoyne drowns, and the fluttering of the Ensign as it sinks with Horatio D’Ascoyne’s ship leave our imaginations to fill-in the more gory details of these crimes. Elaborate editing, camera movement and lighting, is not required because it detracts from the often dark humour of the situation.
Many of the early reviews of Kind Hearts and Coronets heaped generous praise on Alec Guinness, who plays the parts of all the murdered D’Ascoyne’s, although Alan Stanbrook calls his performance a series of ‘caricatures rather than fully rounded characterisations.’ However, he does praise Joan Greenwood as Sibella and Dennis Price, who were regarded as nothing better than pedestrian in a contemporary review by ‘The Observer’ critic C.A. Lejeune.
The complications that emerge because of the boy from Clapham’s need for revenge and social position tend to indicate that people are better off accepting what they have got rather than aspire to things beyond their station. Even Louis’ choice of wife is governed by his lust for social advancement rather than by love (the opposite to his mother’s motives for marrying).
The struggle for heart and mind is reflected in Louis’ own words:
“For while I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much as when I was with Edith.”
Due to his deep feeling for revenge he is constantly trying to cope with his external actions and behaviour and his contradictory inner feelings. The film’s constant juxtaposition of Louis’ external friendliness with his murder victims and his internal thoughts about how to eliminate them provides much of the humour of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Indeed, his victims also display hypocritical character traits. Henry pretends to be against alcohol but keeps supplies in his darkroom/hut; this disjunction between words and actions is enhanced by Louis’ knowing comment to his grieving wife that; “I am sure that Henry would never have professed one thing, and practised another.”
‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ does not use a real, contemporary, social situation yet it does reveal that there is a wide divide between instinct and intellect. Social form makes people repress their inner feelings – this is borne out by the hangman in the opening scene. He is worried about how he should address the Duke, and is pleased that Louis is calm since; “A difficult client can make things most distressing. Some of them tend to be very hysterical. So inconsiderate.” In this society good form is better than showing feelings, even when you only have a few hours to express them left. In addition, any elevation in the eyes of society spoils a person for ‘ordinary’ existence. The hangman confirms this view by saying that “I intend to retire. After using the silken rope (I will) never again be content with hemp.” This could also be regarded as a sly reference to the French Revolution and its orgy of aristocratic executions.
This discontent with the repressing effects of society is one of the reasons why critic Charles Barr regards the film as full of ‘…the teeming energy of a subjective vision (set) against a stuffy official surface. The whole film…(has)…its distinctive style, energy and humour.’