Robert Hamer, UK, 1949, 106 min.
Before: For some reason I thought this was a Powell & Pressburger film. I was wrong. But I am expecting something similar: a witty and smart period piece with some feels.
After: This has a great setup. The film opens on death row. A well-spoken regal young man (Dennis Price) is in a cell writing his memoirs. It’s nearing the time of his execution for the crime of murder.
How did he get to this point? And why is he taking it so matter-of-factly? It was a long road that got him to that point, and the film starts from the beginning.
Without spoiling anything: Louis, our narrator, is a distant relative of the Duke of the D’Ascoyne family and is the last in a long line of elligable family members who will inherit the Dukedom.
Unfortunately, his mother was ostracized from the family and he grew up poor and under-privelaged. But he made due and was happy with his lot, until a brash moment after his mother’s death where he decides that he does deserve the royal title.
But so many relatives stand in his way! An admiral, a priest, the duke’s son, a general, Lady Agatha, and the Duke himself. And the best part, they are all played by Alec Guinness!
It’s a series of great performances in a film filled with great performances. The plot zips along, the jokes are well-written and visually sharp. The whole film is full of unexpected delights.
The style of the film can be exemplified by the two leading ladies, both having central roles in the development of Louis’s character. One is the regal and aristocratic Edith (Valerie Hobson), a prim and proper teetotaler that represents the world Louis is trying to break into. The other is Sibella (Joan Greenwood), the energetic and eager love of his younger years, a passionate and unpredictable force.
That’s the film in a nutshell: a prim and proper British comedy with impeccable upbringing. But one that, even today, is still fresh, fun and surprisingly inventive.