Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #180 on the list, Robert Hamer. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.
Robert Hamer’s 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets is built on a very simple conceit. In the movie, Sir Alec Guinness portrays eight different members of the D’Ascoyne family. No, stating this upfront is not any kind of a spoiler, as it is noted in the very opening credits, and is what the marketing -as you’ll see in the trailer below – was built around.
Yeah, you can, in some ways think of it as one of those Eddie Murphy type movies where Eddie dresses up and plays an entire family. Sorry, kids, it ain’t nothing new.
Well, you could think of it that way if a) Eddie wasn’t playing the characters in a completely obnoxious way, and b) someone was trying to kill off all of the characters that Eddie was playing. Which, now that I do think about it would make it a) a better movie all around, and b) a better movie all around.
Oh, yeah, I left out c) in the first sentence above: the Eddie Murphy movie would also have to actually be smart and funny.
In Kind Hearts, Sir Alec portrays eight of the members of the D’Ascoyne family, all of whom have been targeted for death by Louis Mazzini, the tenth Duke of Chalfont – portrayed by Dennis Price – who is awaiting his execution by hanging the next morning. He has decided to pass the time by writing his memoir, and it is this story that he narrates throughout the film.
Basically, Louis is seeking revenge upon the D’Ascoynes for the family disowning his mother for marrying an Italian opera singer (who is never named, but is also played by Price, thus also giving him a dual role in the film), a move that they consider to be a betrayal against the family’s upper-crust status.
Upon her death, when as a last measure of adding (further) insult to injury, his mother is denied her rightful burial in the family vault, Louis vows revenge upon the entire family – or at least upon those who stand in the way of his becoming the Duke, and thus the head of the family.
The film is quite funny, in that darkly comic droll British way, and has quite a few twists and turns, especially at the end. And to its credit, though Sir Alec does play the various members of the family, it is never in a “Hey, look how different/silly/outrageous I’m being now. Instead he simply takes each character and makes them just that – actual characters.
And credit also really has to go to Price. Though the draw here obviously is Sir Alec, Price never lets go of the film, and owns his own role throughout, providing the audience with a truly great portrayal.
Actually, that may very well be the film’s biggest achievement and a very large part of what makes it a classic. Even if all of the D’Ascoynes had been portrayed by different actors, it would still hold together as a finely crafted film. The central conceit simply adds an extra measure of fun.
I definitely recommend checking this one out.