Kind Hearts And Coronets

Kind Hearts And Coronets

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Louis (Dennis Price) is a capable young man. He didn't get a great start in life, yet through hard work and ingenuity he has managed to make a modest living, and he has done a good job of educating himself. But a little education can be a dangerous thing, and what Louis has learned is that this isn't good enough. He ought to be living the life of an aristocrat; he was robbed of his birthright when the Duke d'Ascoyne disinherited his mother for marrying a man of whom he disapproved. Now Louis has one aim in life: to take the duchy for himself by murdering every member of the d'Ascoyne family who stands in the way of his succession.

If you thought the serial killer was a modern cinematic phenomenon and the 1940s were the preserve of soppy melodramas, think again. The only thing darker than Kind Hearts And Coronets' story is its sense of humour, yet this also spills over into the farcical, creating a vicious comedy that brims with delights. At its core, Price is always elegant and eloquent, the perfect gentleman despite his well concealed dastardly deeds, and one can't help but hope he gets away with it. Opposite him is Alec Guinness in the roles of a lifetime. Eight of them to be precise. Guinness plays every member of the doomed family with wit and a considerable degree of relish, from the portly, boorish Duke to the daydreaming young Henry and the gloriously forthright Suffragette Lady Agatha. If you're only familiar with his later career, this is a chance to see him at his most energetic and playful, and it's tremendous fun.

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Unlike many films of its era, Kind Hearts And Coronets has had the good fortune to be well preserved so that viewers can still enjoy its superb photography, which switches styles subtly yet very effectively as we meet Guinness' different characters. The whole is like a series of short films or murder ballads cobbled together, yet the movement from one to another is smooth and they're well served by a larger plot in which Louis finds himself torn between two women - one an innocent but dangerously influential, the other as ruthless a schemer as he is. The best thing about this film, though, is its razor sharp script. Not a word is wasted as the dialogue bristles with double meanings and Louis' sly observations. Ealing was rightly famous for this kind of writing and this film showcases it at its best. It's a comic masterpiece you'll never tire of watching.

Fans should make an effort to catch this film in its new, restored print, which enhances the crisp photography of the original. Details are much clearer (in places providing extra laughs), the daylit scenes have more depth, and the nighttime scenes foreshadow film noir. The difference is quite striking and makes for a still more satisfying viewing experience.

Reviewed on: 31 Aug 2009
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A poor relation decides to revenge himself on the aristocrats who disinherited his mother by killing them off one by one. Reissue.
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Director: Robert Hamer

Writer: Robert Hamer, based on the book by Roy Horniman.

Starring: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson

Year: 1949

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK

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