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Kind Hearts and Coronets is on Tonight

September 25, 2016


Kind Hearts and Coronets is on tonight, which offers some welcome light relief from EVERYTHING.  Denizens of Ealing, people like me, who were born within the borough frontiers and spent their entire childhood there, are pretty much obligated to love all Ealing Comedies – but Kind Hearts and Coronets is a bit special, even by Ealing standards.

It offers unalloyed pleasure from beginning to end.   From the opening chords, to the closing credits, completely unproblematic satisfaction is provided by the spectacle of an entirely cynical sequence of well executed murders.  The Edwardian setting of the film is filmed beautifully, adding to its escapist delight.   Kind Hearts and Coronets is, in short,  a place where good taste and bad taste meet, where you are seduced into nodding acceptance of the premise of the story for so long, that it’s only when trying to explain the film to others that the utter bitterness and nastiness of its design belatedly confronts you.   In short, it’s a very beautiful film about human ugliness.

Apparently, for distribution in the United States, it was necessary to add a few moments of additional material that indicated that Louis Mazzini’s diary had indeed been discovered and the murderer was therefore likely to pay for his crimes.  I for one vastly prefer the more ambiguous ending, and I’m certain I’m not the only person who hopes the diary is never revealed and Louis goes free.  The D’Ascoyne-Chalfont dynasty is rotten, root and branch, and it deserves to be extirpated.   These smug Anglo-Normans bristle with unearned entitlement and it takes someone with a bit of Mediterranean flair and initiative to take them down.

When I first saw the movie as a young child, I was in awe of Alec Guinness of course, in the multiple roles.  Perhaps best of all is his Reverend Lord Henry – the best advert for disestablishing the Church of England ever committed to the screen – dispatched in part because of his interminable and morally vacant sermon style.   His description of the church’s west window as having  “all the exuberance of Chaucer without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period” shows off one of the truest gifts of a great comic actor – the ability to make tedium funny.

When I was a bit older and saw the movie again, I was in awe of Dennis Price.   There’s something about the steely impassivity of Louis, his utter dedication to his retributive project and the peculiar elegance and precision with which he executes his careful designs.  Price was a wonderful actor, crippled by homophobic persecution, whose descent into gambling, alcoholism, and very bad horror films was as tragic as it was predictable.

But when I was a bit older still, the movie was all about Joan Greenwood.  Because, we really need to talk about Joan Greenwood’s voice. There is more erotic energy charged in that voice than in the most pornographic entertainment you (or even I) can think of.  I don’t care what loose framework of identitarian assertions governs your sexuality, if Joan Greenwood’s voice does not stir you in any way then you really have been chemically castrated.  Indeed, those sentenced to chemical castration probably have Joan Greenwood’s voice played to them immediately afterwards and if they can respond to that voice with a mere shrug then the procedure is officially proclaimed a success.

The director Robert Hamer’s later life resembled Price’s.  Similarly persecuted, similarly wasted… he died very young, with Kind Hearts and Coronets as his only completely realised film.  But this still makes the complete directorial works of Robert Hamer more impressive than those of 99% of film directors you could mention.



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One Comment
  1. I believe I’ve mentioned this film to you before.
    It’s probably the most beautifully-scripted film I’ve ever come across, although it was only after viewing it as an adult that I was able to recognise this. I especially like how the film’s title makes reference to ‘Lady Clara Vere de Vere’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
    “Kind hearts are more than coronets
    And simple faith than Norman blood”

    It’s a sentiment that supporters of a more equal society can relate to. But of course, it is the exact opposite of what Louis believes, despite (or, perhaps, because of) how he and his mother have suffered as outcasts.
    Indeed, the whole film is really about the British class system, which you have to understand in order to truly appreciate some of the subtleties. For example, when Louis is listening the Rev. D’Ascoyne’s boring sermon, he remarks;
    “The D’Ascoynes certainly appeared to have accorded with the tradition of the landed gentry and sent the fool of the family into the Church.”

    Or the contrasts between Louis’s affair with Sibella and his relationship with Mrs D’Ascoyne. The former is every bit as unseemly as one might expect, while the latter could not be more decorous. Note how up to their engagement, Louis and Mrs D’Ascoyne are not even on first-name terms with each other.

    Joan Greenwood is, of course, perfectly cast as the heartless, flirtatious Sibella. But it should also be mentioned how apt Dennis Price and Valerie Hobson are in their parts. Dennis Price did actually come from an upper class/aristocratic background. Had several of his relatives predeceased him, then he might have become the heir to the ‘Rose-Price’ baronetcy. Meanwhile, Valerie Hobson – as the loyal wife who sticks by her husband when he is accused of a terrible crime – was a role which she played in real life when she married a certain Mr Profumo.

    I was also disappointed to learn that Robert Hamer (the director and co-writer) had such a short career. I believe he did a few other films with Alec Guinness, but none of quite the same calibre as this one.

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