Kind hearts are more than coronets, And simple faith than Norman blood.
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- Lord Tennyson
Revenge is a dish the people of taste prefer to eat cold.
- Italian Proverb
Nobody commits murder just for the experience of committing it.
- Brandon Shaw in “Rope”
Whilst many may say Sir Alec Guinness’ best performance was for his Best Actor Oscar-winning role as Colonel Nicholson in David Lean’s World War II extravaganza The Bridge on the River Kwai, I dare to say something to the contrary. I dare to say that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s all-time most memorable acting job was for what the British Film Institute named the 6th greatest British film of all time, for what Guinness won from the National Board of Review a Best Actor award, Kind Hearts and Coronets. The film so nice, Denmark re-released it thrice.
For the uninitiated, Kind Hearts and Coronets is the black comedic revenge tale of Louis Mazzini’s murdering of the upper crust d'Ascoyne family for their wrongs done against him and his mother to inherit his dukedom. From the first murder of Ascoyne d'Ascoyne to the final one of the Duke of Chalfont, Dennis Price’s suavely stark performance as our protagonist is giddily enjoyable. The same could be said about all the inventive killings of the d'Ascoynes. It is Sir Alec Guinness playing all eight members of the victim d'Ascoyne family however, that is the real treat.
The Duke, The Banker, The Parson, The General, The Admiral, Young Ascoyne, Young Henry, and Lady Agatha. Sir Alec Guinness plays them all in virtuosic style. The performance is brilliant because of the contrasts between each family member, the differences between whom we like and whom we hate, between whose blood we want to see spilled and whom we hope Mazzini won’t murder. The only flaw in the performance is that we feel indifferent to some of the family members because they’re only given cameo screen time and aren’t given enough time to develop. Some of them don’t even have dialogue. Nonetheless, the d'Ascoynes we do get to know leave a lasting impression.
My favorite of them was Young Henry d'Ascoyne, a 24-year-old member of the family with an overly obsessive interest in photography. It’s gotten to the point where it interests him more than his wife Edith (Valerie Hobson). The character reminded me of Peter Sellers’ Clare Quilty in Lolita and the young Daffy Duck in Alex Garland’s novel The Beach. The three of them are all just shy, nuanced young fellows with awkward mannerisms. They’re just guys trying to impress the people they’re with. The reason why Sir Alec Guinness’ interpretation of such a character is the best is because he gives a certain degree of humanity to the character on screen that can’t be put into words and must be seen to be understood.
He bestows the same humanity onto the character of Reverend Lord Henry. He makes this elderly gentleman speak in a colloquial manner and gives him the geezer characteristics. Sir Alec Guinness makes Reverend Lord Henry walk, talk, and act like the genuine article. We believe this d'Ascoyne is the real deal. Normally this wouldn’t be much to talk about, but what makes this such a remarkable feat is the fact that Guinness was only 35 at the time the film was made.
And for those looking to see Sir Alec Guinness having fart jokes with himself à la Eddie Murphy in the Nutty Professor films, you will be disappointed. This film boasts no sex and all the violence is off-screen. The comedy here is icy. It’s dark sophisticated British wit with a near satirical tone. Robert Hamer’s direction here is classy, while being cold and detached. His comic timing is impeccable and judging by Coupier, I’m willing to bet Hamer is one of Mike Hodges’ biggest influences.
Edith (Valerie Hobson) and Sibella (Joan Greenwood) make for two interesting love interests for Mazzini. The love triangle that brews between them makes for a satisfying conclusion where Louis quotes John Gay, “How happy could I be with either, were t'other dear charmer away!” Hobson’s performance as kindhearted yet fragile Edith is the perfect foil for Greenwood’s performance as the evilly manipulative Sibella who is best described by Mazzini himself late in Kind Hearts and Coronets:
“I’d say you were the perfect combination of imperfections. I’d say that your nose was just a little too short, your mouth just a little too wide. But that yours was the face that a man could see in his dreams for the whole of his life. I’d say that you were vain, selfish, cruel, deceitful. I’d say that you were adorable. I’d say that you were Sibella.”
The ironic cliffhanger conclusion of the film is merely icing on this already rich and creamy cake. There’s no more of an uplifting ending than one where a cold-hearted killer gets away with murder.
We live in an age of apologies. Apologies, false or true, are expected from the descendants of Empire builders, slave owners, and persecutors of heretics, and from men who, in our eyes, just got it all wrong. So, with the age of 85 coming up shortly, I want to make an apology. It appears I must apologize for being male, white, and European.
- Sir Alec Guinness (April 2, 1914 – August 5, 2000)
- © 2000 by Donlee Brussel
This is part of a write-off in tribute to the late Sir Alec Guinness. Among those honoring the fine thespian are Andrew_Hicks, bigjack, brando814, Brundledan, ChrisJarmick, CurtisEdmonds, energy81, fdknight, George_Chabot, grouch, janesbit1, knix, lars_lindahl, macresarf1, mangiotto, redwolfoz, stone77777, and ZentropaJK.
Extra thanks must be given to Kim for organizing this event and giving us the opportunity to remember such a great man.
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