Kind Hearts and Coronets is a completely droll and delightful comedy of murders, which happens to feature Alec Guinness eight times over. He also dies eight times over. He is blown up (twice), shot, drowned (twice), poisoned, and has his hot air balloon punctured by an arrow. He also manages to die of a perfectly ordinary heart attack. By the end, there isn’t an Alec Guinness left standing.
The story follows the quest of a draper’s assistant, Louis Mazzini, (Dennis Price) to murder his way to the D’Ascoyne Dukedom. There are seven D’Ascoyne’s standing in his way (all played by Guinness), not to mention the duke himself (also played by Guinness).
Louis is himself the son of a D’Ascoyne, but she romantically ran off with an Italian tenor and was cut off by the family. But that doesn’t prevent her from raising her son with the utmost conviction of his family worth and the grievous offense done to his mother by the family. He decides on revenge after she dies and gets to work, starting things off with an improvised double drowning.
The film makes ruthless fun of the aristocrats and one is almost on Louis’ side for how they all refuse to acknowledge his existence, except that Louis is just as much of a snob as they are.
The two women in Louis life are Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood sweetheart, and Edith (Valerie Hobson), the teetotaler wife of young Henry D’Ascoyne. After Henry is blown up (in his dark room – he’s a photography enthusiast), Edith becomes a widow and Louis determines to marry her. He believes she would make an ideal, dignified and gracious Duchess.
In the meantime, he carries on an affair with Sibella, who he does not think would make a very good Duchess, though she is the only person to see through him. Louis thinks that he has the upper hand and can discard her at will, but she turns out to be every bit as good at scheming as he is, if not a bit better. In hindsight, he really should have just married her – they would have been unstoppable.
Dennis Price is superb as the man who would be a duke, narrating his story on the night before he is to be hanged (by an executioner thrilled to his core that he is to meet – and hang – a Duke…with a silk noose, no less). It is primarily his story. However, the film is most famous for allowing Alec Guinness the chance to play eight different members of the same family, roles which he approaches with a hilarious kind of tongue-in-cheek deadpan expression. Suppressed glee, perhaps. All one has to do practically is look at Alec Guinness in one of his roles and break out laughing.
He plays the duke, a young photography enthusiast oppressed by his wife’s extreme goodness (and insistence that he abstain from alcohol), a stubborn admiral, a general, a doddering old clergyman, a radical suffragette (my favorite of his roles), an old banker, and a roue, who is also the son of the banker.
Apparently, Alec Guinness was offered four roles, but when he read the script he thought it was so marvelous he suggested that he play eight, instead.
What is interesting is how understated it is all done, though. There is only one shot where we have all eight Guinness’ D’Ascoyne’s together and in every other case they are in separate scenes of their own. None of it is in the least showy. The one scene where he does appear in full force (at church) was evidently very difficult to do, however, and it took several days. They would expose different portions of the film, each with a different Alec Guinness.
This is brilliant British comedy, about as funny as anything I’ve ever seen, in truth. I think, in time, this could become a real favorite.