Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.”

‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, directed by Robert Hamer in 1949, is a British black comedy made by the Ealing Studios. Dennis Price plays Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, the son of an aristocratic mother who has been disinherited by her family. Mazzini grows up in poverty, but when his mother dies and the family refuses to bury her in the ancestral plot, he resolves to murder his way through the family tree to gain the dukedom. Slowly each eccentric member of the family, all played by Alec Guinness, is killed, but Mazzini is telling his story from prison on the eve of his execution, so which murder will prove his downfall? It’s a glorious film, sumptuous and witty, but incredibly subversive. There’s a rich vein of left-wing politics that run through this – the presentation of the aristocracy as an eccentric line of canon-fodder, and the ironic social distaste shown by Mazzzini even as he’s killing them, underpins this feeling of a satirical edge. In every way this film is successful, from the razor-sharp comedy  to the buttoned up, ironic performance by Price. It’s Guinness who is most remember for this, as eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, each constructed with incredible definition and detail. Watching this so soon after ‘Le Jour Se Lève’, I was struck by the similarity in narrative construction, but whilst that movie emphasised the dark and used fantasy to almost create a sense of madness, in ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, it is used to an almost nostalgic, pastoral degree.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a perfectly judged black comedy and a classic British movie. Watch with ‘Le Jour Se Lève’ for the same balance of flashbacks from a doomed man.

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