The Golden Age is one of those movie expressions that gets used all the time, but one whose meaning no two people are likely to agree on. For some, it’s the silent years of Chaplin and Keaton, for others the Nouvelle Vague boom of 1960s France, for others the era of the Western and for others it’s the present day. However, for many English film enthusiasts, the Ealing Studios films of the ’40s and ’50s were the Golden Age of British filmmaking, and many put the studio’s 1949 comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets at the very top of the impressive list.
Told by Dennis Price’s ill-fated Louis Mazzini, the story is relayed in almost entirely flashback from Mazzini’s prison cell the night before his execution: he’s writing his memoirs, which are dryly voiced over the entire film. His mother, born into the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family, marries a poor Italian singer and is disowned, losing her birthright to the dukedom the family possesses. The family reject any advances she makes toward reconciliation. When she dies, Louis vows to take revenge for his mother’s life of struggle by becoming the of Duke of Chalfont, and plans to kill those who stand between him and accession on the way.
It’s a cliché, but Kind Hearts and Coronets really was years ahead of its time. 1940s England, a decade often associated with primness and post-war depression, seemed hardly the place to make a dark comedy about murder, yet Robert Hamer’s film joyfully flies in the face of such expectations. The jokes here vary from slapstick to coal-black humour, each deftly handled by the director and accomplished stars.
Price, brilliant in the central role, imbues Louis with charm, desperation and malevolence – he’s able to coolly share tea with one of his victim’s wives moments after he murders him – painting him as a man who begins bent on revenge but gradually gets drunk on power. Joan Greenwood’s Sibella is high-strung and melodramatic, but her innocent beauty belies her darker motives, while Valerie Hobson’s comely Edith is charming, graceful and strong-willed: we can see why Mazzini finds himself more than a little infatuated with both.
Yet it’s Alec Guinness, playing every member of the D’Ascoyne family, who delivers the star performance. Wonderful in each of his eight characters, he makes each ludicrous but authentic, from the rambling priest to the barbarous head of the family. Although each incarnation doesn’t get equal screentime, Guinness makes each one equally memorable, and his multiple roles offer a few excellent compositional gags: Mazzini sits in Ascoyne D’Ascoyne’s office, which has a photo of D’Ascoyne’s son on the desk and a portrait on the wall – all three are Alec Guinness.
Watching Guinness being unceremoniously offed several times is joyous, many of the D’Ascoynes appear thoroughly deserving of their fates, but the comedy is always undercut by its subject matter. Mazzini’s motives are hateful, his plan positively devilish, and while we spend much of the film laughing and cheering Price’s leading man along, we are forced to occasionally consider his own rottenness: he spends much of the film in an affair with the now-married Sibella, and gleefully crosses off D’Ascoyne family members after he shuffles them off this mortal coil. It’s a brilliant, brutal central idea which appears gruesome but turns out uproarious, a hard feat to achieve.
The problems which often beleaguer comedies from elder eras don’t affect Kind Hearts as they do lesser pictures. The film is set in the early 20th Century, so intentionally dates itself, the performances are wonderfully layered and the jokes have lost none of their sting.
While watching Hamer’s film, you realise quite how many people have mimicked its ideas, and were the movie in colour you’d never believe it was made 60 years ago. Wonderful and progressive, this is an essential piece of British movie history.
Verdict: Funny, clever, satirical and savage, this is perhaps the finest of the Ealing films, lit up by three excellent performances and a titanic turn from Alec Guinness. With a wry, darkly hilarious core and a meticulously crafted exterior, Kind Hearts is the kind of timeless film that doesn’t come around often, and is marvellous in nearly every respect.