It is the rare satire that hones its cynicism so finely as to become uplifting. Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is the crown jewel of England’s mid-century Ealing Studios comedies, a film as pitch-perfect as it is pitch-black. And it would be good with Alec Guinness in only one role, but what constant delight to discover him distinctly in eight. Guinness plays the whole of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family, all “monsters of arrogance and cruelty” according to the young man (Dennis Price) whose mother they disowned for eloping with an ignoble Italian tenor — and whose vengeance consists of acquiring the D’Ascoyne dukedom by killing his way through the family tree.
As recalled in his placidly narrated confession, this sardonic, unflappable scoundrel displays a good knack for the art of murder, varying his means according to circumstance: an arrow to the lady’s hot-air balloon; a bomb in the general’s caviar; a dollop of poison in the vicar’s goblet; a nudging of the scion (along with his mistress, a collateral casualty) over a waterfall. “I was sorry about the girl,” he recalls, “but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death.” It’s as potent a lampoon of absurd Edwardian mores as anything in Edward Gorey, and just as impishly rendered.
Criterion’s new two-disc set also offers a useful BBC documentary about the history of Ealing Studios and a talk-show interview with the consummate charmer Guinness–touching on, among other things, the parrot to whom he taught a few lines of Hamlet; the other animals from whom he drew inspiration; and the affecting blend of erudition and humility with which he borrowed from T.S. Eliot to summarize his career: “Every achievement is a new sort of failure.”