Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is the sort of dry, dark comedy that isn’t made very much anymore. The 1949 picture stands starkly as a sort of exercise in pursed politeness, where lines are uttered with cold intellectualism and character operate in outlandish but utterly “civilized” ways.
Loosely based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of Criminal, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a comedy about class that carries itself through with the gravity of a drama. And there is the small matter of Alec Guinness, who plays eight distinct characters without drawing too much attention to himself.
The tale begins with Louis d’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) waiting for his execution. He is every bit the fated lord, but things weren’t always the case. Mazzini was rejected by the d’Ascoyne aristocracy because his father’s (Price) Italian performing stock. With his mother (Audrey Fildes) gone and rejected, Louis commences a nefarious plot.
The plot involves a few contrivances of dukedom, like how the title can pass down through female successors and so forth. Louis, with his marriage proposal rejected by his childhood friend Sibella (Joan Greenwood), works his murderous way through the d’Ascoyne line (Guinness) as he ascends to nobility.
There are numerous entanglements along the way, of course. Sibella marries Lionel (John Penrose) because he’s got money, but she finds him the most uninteresting man in the whole of England and can’t help but visit Louis in his undulating bachelor pad.
Louis is all too happy to see the breathy Sibella, even while he’s lining up an engagement with the recently widowed Edith (Valerie Hobson). She lost her man Henry d’Ascoyne (Guinness) in an explosion and is the perfect duchess for Louis, whose social climbing skills aren’t at all repressed by her hatred of drink.
It is to Guinness’ matchless credit that he fades to the background of Kind Hearts and Coronets. A lesser comedy would’ve made a big production of his multipurpose portrayals, but he serves the bigger picture here and allows the protagonists to hold focus. His characterizations are accurate, stingingly so.
Price is the star of the show and his scintillating coolness is remarkable. His Louis is both dreadful and relatable, as his featureless neglect at the hands of the d’Ascoyne clan represents the dismissiveness of the ruling class. He is the forgotten son and is determined to win his own favour.
The women of Louis’ life complicate things, starting with his mother. Perhaps life would’ve worked out differently if she hadn’t told him of her own lethal inclinations. Sibella’s rejection wears on him, but he wins the upper hand when her immoral desires show up at the doorstep. And Edith, seemingly an everlasting dupe, may or may not be the object of his desires.
It’s impossible to ignore what Greenwood brings to the picture. She is a panting, heaving sort and her command is impeccable. She sportingly navigates the tricks of a rapacious woman and it’s hard to pile up a lot of sympathy for her predicament, which is a credit to her tight performance.
Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t an uproarious comedy, but it is a defiantly cold comedy with a black-as-night edge. The murders are diabolical and amusing, the performances are stellar and the writing is sharp. And Guinness plays through it all, hiding in plain sight as the d’Ascoyne numbers dwindle.