Review: ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’

This tour-de-force of black comedy from Ealing Studios remains one of the truly undimmed classics of British post-war cinema, most remembered for Alec Guinness' eight stunningly eclectic comic perfs. Robert Hamer's film remains the most unfailingly genteel serial-killer pic you're ever likely to see.

Three years shy of its 60th anniversary, this tour-de-force of black comedy from Ealing Studios remains one of the truly undimmed classics of British post-war cinema, most remembered for Alec Guinness’ eight stunningly eclectic comic perfs. What was then a startling deviation from the determinedly cozy, folksy and unstintingly patriotic conventions of Ealing fare, Robert Hamer’s film remains the most unfailingly genteel serial-killer pic you’re ever likely to see, at turns unsentimental, amoral, callous and erotic, but unquestionably funny.

Thoroughly deserving of Criterion’s attentions, the film looks better than it ever has, thanks to a superb restoration and an exquisite high-definition transfer. Viewers can also see the alternate U.S. ending, shot to comply with then-prevailing production codes that dictated that crime must never pay.

The supplemental disc offers two top-notch extras: In a 70-minute interview from 1977, Guinness is in charming form, offering anecdotes about his career along with the odd crowd-pleasing display of his acting prowess. It also proves the thesp did once have good things to say about “Star Wars,” a film he grew to loathe.

The 75-minute 1986 BBC docu “Made in Ealing” provides a glimpse in to the 25-year history of the tiny studio dedicated to producing films purposely designed to be, according to studio chief Michael Balcan, “thoroughly British from the roots up.” Given Balcan’s domineering Puritan streak, it’s surprising the dark-spirited “Kind Hearts” ever got made in the first place.

The lack of a commentary is disappointing, but journo Philip Kemp provides a well-informed essay on the pic’s cultural context in the accompanying booklet.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Feb. 28; Double disc: $39.95

Production

A Criterion Collection release of Robert Hamer's "Kind Hearts & Coronets" (1949).

Cast

With: Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood.
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