Friday, January 3, 2014

Kind Hearts And Coronets - Movie Review

Normally, I love British dry humor, but I think this may well have been one of the driest comedies I've ever seen. If American humor flourishes in the marshlands of slapstick, and British wit in a dry waste, Kind Hearts and Coronets is somewhere in the Sahara Desert. However, while it's not a funny, the film is still amusing, a dark, deadpan, ironic satire on everything that makes England English.

Coronets is certainly a black comedy, featuring as its protagonist Louis Mazzini, a ruthless, psychopathic serial killer. But he's English, which means he also has impeccable manners. Dennis Price plays the role to perfection, floating in and out of social functions while sadly lamenting his fiscal misfortunes. His mother, marrying an Italian singer, was disowned the rest of the D'Ascoyne family, and thus did young Louis Mazzini lose his stake in the family inheritance.

Regrettably but necessarily, old fellow, Louis must take drastic action. What he does do is begin killing off the family, one by one, to repay them for placing such value on social class, all the while climbing towards the duchy himself.

If that's not irony I don't know what is. Coronets is chock-full of it, with many a character undone by their own vices, helped along by Louis's lethal ingenuity. As for the family themselves, the plural is inappropriate, for nearly every D'Ascoyne is played by the chameleonic Alec Guinness (including Lady Agatha). I found his cameos somewhat over-rated, for many of the roles only receive brief screen-time, but the two or three D'Ascoyne's he manages to develop were amusing and eccentric, easily distinguishable. But anyone that says Guinness is the real hero of the film is talking utter rot; Dennis Price is undoubtedly center stage. (As an aside, Price reminded me strongly, both physically and personality-wise, of Anthony Valentine's rather funnier jewel thief, A.J. Raffles. Interestingly, they were both in a terrible horror film briefly before Valentine played Raffles.)

Restraint, that most British of characteristics, saturates the film. Louis narrates much of it in a dry, polished voice-over, coolly and disinterestedly describing his murders through the skewed lens of a prim, egotistic moral code. Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood form a dainty love triangle around him, but this too feels as if all emotion is being held at arm's length. While this distance is appropriate to the subject, it is also one of the film's weaknesses, refusing to allow the actors to indulge in more obvious humor.

While I feel like I must surrender my Anglophile card to say this, Kind Hearts and Coronets did not instantly jump into my favorite film list, suffering from its dryness and predictable episodic nature, with few real twists or suspense along the way. All the same, it glories in the English language like few films today, with clever and diverting dialogue, and I suspect would improve upon repeat viewings, as the finer details begin to emerge among the deep subtlety.

NR - all real violence is off-screen, and it is just part of the whole dark humor of the thing. Adultery is a major part of the plot.

3.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

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