Not rated. Now, normally, I would stress that technically this is about a serial killer, but in the lightest, most tongue-in-cheek way possible. But then, the movie just casually drops three n-bombs in the final few minutes of the movie. The fact that the movie is so lackadaisical about evil acts almost buries the fact that 1949 England was just casually racist. I suppose that the main characters also carry on affairs, but after all that, does it even matter? Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Robert Hamer
I've seen it before. Let's get that out of the way first. I feel there might be judgy eyes. You know what? Kind Hearts and Coronets is a deep cut for most audiences. Don't you judge me. I'm just getting around to watching my copy, which I bought two years ago. That's the real travesty. I hate not watching things that I own. I know that it was two years ago because one of my students really wanted to watch this movie as we were studying the Ealing studio. I then thought how much I needed this in my collection because I'm a real cool guy. I tended to show the Patton Oswalt intro on TCM about this movie and reminded myself on how much I liked it. But after seeing the Patton Oswalt intro more than I had seen the original movie, maybe I disagree with Oswalt because my memory wasn't fresh.
I'm not the biggest fan of Ealing Comedies. I know. That's borderline blasphemy in the film nerd world. They're just so intensely British. Listen, the British revolutionized comedy. I consider myself to be more than an anglophile. I consider myself to be a zealot. But the Ealing comedy era was such a specific brand of comedy. It was so British that an American can barely relate to it. It's funny, because as I write that, I think of how much Walt Disney movies were influenced by movies like Kind Hearts and Coronets. I mean, they borderline have the same narrator. But these movies are about the aristocracy. Now, I'm admitting that these movies are taking the mickey out of the aristocracy. But it doesn't feel like this movie is about the common man taking a swing at the upper class. It feels like a bit of a roast. They all seem to be making fun of themselves. That's no fun, is it? Well, it's a little fun because I'm decently well off and really am trying. But it takes a minute to get into the movie itself as a piece of entertainment. I mean, when it takes a minute...IT TAKES A MINUTE.
About 40 minutes in, that's when I started to like the movie. It was never bad. It's just so incredibly dry and British. The beginning of the film establishes Mazzini as a sympathetic character. It's funny. The entire movie is about revenge for his family being slighted by the D'Ascoynes. But even as his most rage filled, he's got that proper British stiff upper lip. That's what Ealing is shooting for. Part of that is the gag itself. The very nature of me pointing it out means that I'm not really getting the joke. I am. I just have a hard time relating to it because it's something that we can't really comment on here. For all of the brutality that this movie has, it's always done in the proper gentlemanly fashion. After a while, the joke really starts to land. What it doesn't do, unfortunately, is give us much insight into Louis's true thoughts about every member of the D'Ascoyne family. We have the narration for that, but the movie is actually quite short considering how many murders Louis has to prepare for.
Oswalt found this movie hilarious. The man is smarter than I am. He's one of those uber-geniuses that I could only aspire to. (Either that, or his impostor syndrome is on point.) I do acknowledge that it is great. Once you get into it, you start to manage expectations. It's a little bit like Shakespeare or The Wire; it takes some getting used to. But once that happens, you acknowledge it as being a great movie. I just never get the sense of hilarity that he testifies to. Humor, incredibly subjective. But he also talks about Alec Guinness, especially when it comes to his many facets / faces. I bow to Sir Alec Guinness in this movie. He makes the movie. But I am weirded out by Oswalt's testimony about Lady D'Ascoyne. She's barely a character in the movie. He talks about how these D'Ascoynes are one worse than the next. Instead, I actually read the movie quite differently. Instead of viewing the D'Ascoynes as deserving of their morbid fates, I kind of view the D'Ascoynes as typical terrible characters in an already terrible world.
The D'Ascoynes are monsters in the first act. Refusing to let Louis into the family and denying Louis's mother the right to be buried on the land is harsh. When Louis describes them, they sound absolutely awful. But when we meet them, often they are quasi-sympathetic. Not always. The first assassinated D'Ascoyne lives up to his reputation. Louis dispatching Sir. Ascoyne D'Ascoyne almost sets up a precident to how these D'Ascoynes are going to act. And I really should be watching this Patton Oswalt intro again because I remember him implying that Louis would have difficulty killing Henry D'Ascoyne, the most lovable of the bunch. I don't ever sense a moment of hesitation from Louis, despite the fact that Henry is just a nice guy who drinks in secret. Once Sir Ascoyne D'Ascoyne is murdered, all of the rest seem almost likable, with the exception of the patriarch of the family whom you can take or leave. The shift of morality seems to sway from the seemingly evil D'Ascoynes to the protagonist (s) of the piece. If anything, Louis becomes more and more rotten as the story progresses.
I'm not crazy. That's kind of the message of the piece. Louis and Sibella become way worse than any of the D'Ascoynes ever were. I've rooted for murderers in movies before. The entire revenge subgenre of thriller is about rooting for murderers, so I'm not above that. But we instead root for the bad guy of the piece. It's odd because it's not like there is a character development with Louis. Again, had Louis been slowly corrupted or had any emotional response shy of glee when it came to these multiple murders, I could see this being the story of how revenge slowly corrupted this man. But because this is an Ealing comedy, the flat delivery must be maintained throughout. If I'm playing Devil's Advocate, I could say that, because this story is almost an epistolary novel, the influence of a narrator may recolor the actual events of the story, but that's me adding myself into the analysis a bit too much. But I love how evil Sibella is. Part of my challenge of getting into the story is my expectations of what the story is supposed to be. I assumed that Louis and Sibella were going to be more upstanding than Louis's victims. But never. It's just is a matter of them being selfish jerks who happen to fail upwards.
Let me tell you how much I love Sibella. Sibella is Gone Girl before Gone Girl. That ending is so good. There's this whole level of British spite that is going through these characters. There's the ending that I thought happened: In my mind, the movie just ends with him getting caught because Sibella set him up. I forgot that there's this whole other beat that happens, where Sibella offers to free him (VERY Gone Girl!) in exchange for marrying her. There's the potential double cross on Sibella's part. Then there's this beat that is just starting at me: I think the movie is going to have Louis take Sibella down using a confessional that is the transcript of the piece. But then, both of them go down because he was so prideful in his crime. It's funny, because I never really get the vibe that he's writing this because he wants Sibella to hang with him. It's a point of pride and contextualizing his prison sentence, which is fun. But everything is just proper and mannerly spite and that's the stuff I really relish. What I don't understand is...
...Edith D'Ascoyne. I get that, during his rise through the ranks of the D'Ascoyne family, that he wants to put himself in a proper light and gain access to private family events. I can see marrying Lady Edith to get to these meetings. But he only really proposes marriage to Edith once the Dukedom is borderline already his. Sure, there's a hiccup when the patriarch D'Ascoyne decides to marry a fertile woman whom he loathes. But Edith's marriage wouldn't have changed a thing by then anyway. Louis talks about his dislike of Edith from the start. As sympathetic as we are to Henry D'Ascoyne, Edith almost comes across as the most annoying because her virtue is to the point of judgement and prudishness. I get the notion to marry Edith as a form to make Sibella jealous, which it does. I just don't know why Edith. It seems like such a loose thread in this plan and also self-flaggelating. Like, it works for him in terms of getting a good character witness, but that doesn't even acquit him of a crime (that has a shocking little amount of evidence against him).
But the movie is still really good. I can't deny that, once I got into it, it was really good. Is it hilarious? Not in the typical way. It's very reserved and it's almost a bit too British. But in terms of greatness, it's pretty solid.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.