Post-war Britain didn’t seem like a particularly great time to laugh, and yet this was the period that saw the rise of Ealing Studios, who gave birth to some of Britain’s best comedies. Perhaps it’s appropriate that during these somewhat bleak times, these films indulged some decidedly dark themes. I haven’t seen a ton of these Ealing comedies (other than The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers), but other than their deliciously biting nature, there’s also a sophisticated and unsentimental quality that makes these movies hold up much better than a lot of comedies from this era. Then on top of that, a lot of them feature Alec Guinness having about as much fun as he ever had as an actor (sorry George Lucas), and it’s hard to get more fun than playing nine different characters in the same movie.
One thing that makes this movie undeniably British (other than everyone’s fanciness) is that it’s mostly about social class. The character in Kind Hearts and Coronets who is most affected by the British class system is our anti-hero Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (played by Dennis Price), who we first encounter sitting in a prison cell. We see him writing in his memoir about what landed him in prison as we’re whisked away to Louis’ childhood through flashback. We see that his mother, the daughter of a Duke, was basically kicked out of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family after she married an Italian opera singer that the family deemed to be beneath her.
We cut to many years later, where Louis is working as a disgruntled clerk in a fabric store and his mother has become ill. On her deathbed, his mother asks that Louis persuade the D’Ascoyne’s to bury her at the family castle, but they refuse. This infuriates Louis, who can’t help but think of something that has been in the back of his mind his whole life — that despite being estranged, he is one of the heirs to the D’Ascoyne family’s dukedom. So he then starts to ingratiate himself within the family by working for the head of the family, Duke Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, and plots to kill the other 8 members of the D’Ascoyne family that stand between him and the throne.
Obviously, this is a great plot for a dark comedy, and I would say Kind Hearts and Coronets more than delivers on making every family member’s death satisfying. First, because each character feels like their own distinct personality, and also a different shade of rich, entitled buffoon. But also in the way that each of the characters die in a variety of amusing ways. You’ve got death by arson, poison, explosions, hot-air-balloon, and multiple types of dying at sea, while each of them is staged with a bluntness that’s funny, but avoids being pure slapstick.
Unsurprisingly, the other thing that makes each one of these morbid episodes enjoyable is watching Alec Guinness play all nine members of the D’Ascoyne family. Some of them are more developed than others, but it seems obvious that plenty of work went into making each character feel unique, both in terms of the acting as well as the make-up work. Probably the most memorable of Guinness’s many deaths is when he plays a ship captain who refuses to abandon his sinking ship, who we see drowning in one unbroken shot as the water keeps rising until the only part of the captain that’s visible is his floating hat. It’s a scene that director Robert Hamer insisted on shooting this way, and is just one of the director’s many small-but-crucial comedic details peppered throughout the film.
Perhaps more surprising is just how great Dennis Price is as the film’s charming, psychopathic protagonist. Price isn’t exactly one of the titans of British acting, but despite being someone I’d never heard of, he’s just as captivating as Guinness is here. He manages to walk a fine line between manipulative and despicable, while also being fairly sympathetic considering that he is at the end of the day, a victim of injustice. Even if that injustice feels a little frivolous. The two women that Louis is caught between swooning (Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood) are also quite good and end up being more and more crucial as the film progresses. Similarly, we see them sporting more and more ridiculous hats each time they show up, which apparently is satirizing the decadence of the pre-WWI Edwardian era that the film is set in.
When watching older British films, I do often run into the problem of them being “too British” for lack of a better term. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t encounter that feeling watching Kind Hearts And Coronets, especially when it covers a theme as consummately British as class. Though I suppose hating on rich people is almost always going to be an engaging concept to explore in a movie. It’s why Parasite was such a big crossover success, even when South Korea’s relationship with capitalism is probably fairly unique to what’s in that movie. But I guess if you can find a clever way to poke fun at the upper-class with astuteness and a little bit of bite, you’re as good as golden.