Review by Trylon volunteer David Berglund.
In a few short weeks, the Tony Awards will take place at Radio City Music Hall. More likely than not, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, nominated for a leading 10 awards, will take home a haul, including Best Musical. While I was lucky enough to see this very entertaining production on a recent trip to New York, I could not help but find myself comparing it to another work that shares its source material (Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal). That work is, of course, the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, a personal favorite of mine, and, as far as I am concerned, a bona fide masterpiece.
Both works share the ludicrous and ingenious plot of a discarded distant heir to nobility systematically knocking off his eccentric and pompous relatives to attain status, but it is Kind Hearts that ultimately proves to be the more daring and impressive work. Where Guide thrives on its witty wordplay, physical comedy, and an energetic, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque score, Hearts does something far more interesting – it allows its sociopathic protagonist to wholly have the stage and control the film’s tone and perspective, largely by way of ever-present, carefully crafted voiceover.
One would think that this would be an unpleasant experience, but by drawing outcast Louis Mazzini (played with a deliciously dry sensibility by Dennis Price) as a witty, affable, and meticulously reasoned fellow whose pragmatism simply supersedes a moral code, the film allows viewers to simultaneously hold sympathy for him and comfortably denounce his murderous actions. By allowing Mazzini to present himself as a gentleman of sincere intent, the film pulls off a daring trick in creating an antihero who is both quite thoroughly entertaining while being wholly condemnable. It is a tightrope that director Roger Hamer walks with absolute perfection, mirroring Louis’s studied words with equally carefully crafted compositions.
All of this is aided by the presence of the shape shifting Alec Guinness, who plays all eight of the doomed heirs standing between Louis and his goal. What is most impressive about Guinness’s performances are that they are all distinct and amusing, but never distracting. It is clear that Guinness is not concerned with stealing the show, but rather with providing the film with a subtle quirkiness and continuity. To put it another way, his presence throughout the film adds uniformity to the object of Mazzini’s vengeance and furthers the idea that the family shares an ugliness that is simply begging to be eradicated. While Mazzini’s vengeful tactics are clearly unjustified, we nevertheless cannot help but wish for justice to be served and feel a twinge of excitement with him as his victims fall. Thus, by filling the story with a cast full of entertaining and despicable scoundrels, the film once again expertly walks a fine line in making murder equal parts deplorable and enjoyable. Needless to say, it is a one of a kind cinematic experience.
David Berglund is a proud Longfellow resident and ardent cinema junkie who previously wrote on film with his wife, Chelsea Berglund, on their Movie Matrimony blog.
Kind Hearts and Coronets screens Monday and Tuesday at 7:00 & 9:00 at the Trylon. Purchase tickets here.