Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 88: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Re-watching Kind Hearts and Coronets for the sake of this blog post (the film is one of the Ealing films I’ve seen several times in my life, although admittedly not in recent years), I’d forgotten how sexual a film it is. Many of the films seen over the course of this challenge have challenged Ealing’s reputation as a studio more at home with restrained and repressed subjects, but this film stands alongside Another Shore (1948), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Feminine Touch (1956) as films that are quite wonderfully overt about sex, lust and longing.

It may be that the perceived knowledge of this film works to soften some of that sexual sting: the pitch-black nature of much of the comedy, as Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini has his murderous revenge on the D’Ascoyne family (after they disinherit and shun his mother); Alec Guinness’ masterful performance of eight characters from the D’Ascoyne family; the reputation of the film among the ‘Ealing comedies’.

Yet good as Price and Guinness are, Joan Greenwood as Sibella is in danger of walking away with the whole film, developing from an apparently flighty and flirtatious society girl to a sly and cunning mistress, before blooming into a lying and mischievous blackmailer. Despite being almost constantly buttoned up in a series of ornate outfits, Greenwood uses her husky low tones and coquettish manner to position Sibella as a strong sexual figure on par with Mazzini and the D’Ascoynes. It is true that the film often resorts to a simplistic dualism with its main female characters, with Louis caught between Sibella’s machinations and his courtship of uptight and abstemious widow Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), but both actresses bring humour and life to their different roles (Greenwood can be more obviously theatrical, while Hobson is more restrained but equally pointed) that allow some development beyond the obvious virgin/whore dynamic.

The sexual thrust of the film doesn’t end with the women. Dennis Price is a striking and sexual figure throughout: wooing Edith and Sibella, an expert in ladies underwear (from working in a draper’s shop), taunting Sibella’s cuckolded husband with the line ‘you’re a lucky man now, take my word for it’, and apparently also attractive to men, with a strongly suggestive scene with photography enthusiast Henry D’Ascoyne (Guinness) who offers to show Louis his equipment in the safety of his dark room. The D’Ascoyne line, from which Louis is descended, is not short on lust: the family line passes through male and female heirs because of the first Duchess’ ‘relationship’ with Charles II; while Louis murders Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (the younger; also Guinness) while he is on a dirty weekend in Maidenhead. (hardly an accidental choice of venue).

Of course, the film isn’t just about sex. It is about family, murder, the class system... Yet, at the same time, sex lies at the heart of the narrative. Sex is the (unspoken) reason Louis’ mother (Audrey Fildes) left the family home to marry her Italian lover (and was then shunned thereafter); and sex is the initial fuel behind Louis’ murderous decision to wreak revenge on the D’Ascoyne family. While his mother’s death and the family’s refusal for her to be buried at the ancestral home is the reason Louis gives to others, the film shows us he only makes the decision after Sibella spurns his advances and announces she has accepted a marriage proposal from Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sex is what causes Louis to be tried for murder (after Sibella hides Lionel’s suicide note and insinuates Lionel confronted Louis over their affair); sex is what saves him from the hangman’s noose (Sibella, again, finds the note in exchange for future sexual favour, and the future death of another D’Ascoyne, Edith).

Like many of the Ealing films studied through this challenge, part of the joy of the film comes from the minor characters: notably Mr Elliot the executioner, who keeps forgetting to address Duke Louis by his correct title (Your Grace). By casting Guinness as the family D’Ascoyne, the film highlights the importance of such brief characters, with several short vignettes of the suffragette Lady Agatha (killed in a balloon ‘accident’), the dullard Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne (poisoned port) and pompous Ethelred D’Ascoyne (hunting accident). While most of them remain caricatures of particular British upper class types – the obstinate naval captain, the bumbling priest, the horny playboy – they are well-observed and largely exist as backdrop to Louis’ progression to the Dukedom.

Unlike some of the others Ealing films the visual elements are enjoyable but rarely stand out: there are location shots throughout, notably in the grounds of various D’Ascoyne family estates and houses, but again they feel like a useful backdrop than a potent part of the narrative. The only exception to that might be the scene between Edith and Louis, which continues after potting shed has exploded, and the smoke drifts serenely behind Edith’s head. The film’s humour lies in tone, dialogue and performance as much as its visuals, although it all looks impressive in the restored print released by Studio Canal on Blu-Ray in 2011.
[Kind Hearts and Coronets is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]

Next time, more upper class romantic chaos in Young Man's Fancy (1939)...

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