Sunday, 28 August 2011

kind hearts and coronets (w&d robert hamer)

I went to see this with my sister. She said she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen it. Then, upon leaving the cinema, she commented that she wasn't sure she'd actually ever seen it in its entirety. Kind Hearts is one of those films which my generation by and large feels as though it has seen, even if it hasn't. It occupies its own, obscure place in the national psyche. In its way, it is as British as Loach or Hancock. The audience at the NFT revelled in the screening; it isn't every time you go there that an audience seems to bask so contentedly in the shade of its screen. There is a peculiar moment, however, towards the end of the film, when Price and Greenwood, both making acting look effortless, have an exchange which included that phrase 'ten little niggers'. For a split second, the glow was punctured, the gap between the eras rent asunder. On one level Kind Hearts encapsulates a kind of ageless quality of Britishness. On another, it belongs to another era altogether.

What is this ageless quality? It is distilled in the performances of the film's leading actors. The first is that of Dennis Price, the would-be Baronet and serial killer. Price invests the part with an insouciance which is almost Gallic. He is descended from the ranks of Sidney Carlton, Oscar Wilde and Hamlet. The absurdity of existence always flirting with its actuality. However, unlike the French, the Bristish never succumb to or indulge that absurdity. Rather it is incorporated. Into our customs, our sexuality and our disdain for the serious. So many of the greatest British characters succeed in capturing this disdain, upto and including Bond. The rules are paid lip-service, and then broken. Greenwood, that most under-rated of actresses, enters into this game with gusto. It justifies both her affair and her complete lack of scruples at the end. In contrast to these two, there is the famouly Titanic performance of Guiness, playing eight different characters. There is something heroically ridiculous about Guiness' performance, a bit like our empire and our delusions of grandeur. That Price should exercise that other aspect of Britishness to bring down the Guiness set seems entirely appropriate. As though our devilish good nature is triumphing over our pompous banality.

These traits persist in our psyche today. If I was being mischevious I might call it the battle between Pinter annd Hare. Hamer pinpoints this conflict with glee. In addition to this, there is a faultlessness about the film's tempo and execution which lends it the quality of a classic. As with any work of art, it is of its time, a time that has long since elapsed. But Kind Hearts manages to transcend its time and remain one of the most British, and beautifully British, films ever made.

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