At Last, a ‘Stiff’ Satire of Costume Epics

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Those austere, handsomely mounted Edwardian-era films with their green lawns, golden skies and repressed emotions--yes, I’m a little sick of them, too. Why has it taken so long for a movie like “Stiff Upper Lips” to get made? Was Mel Brooks that busy? Isn’t there a corset that would fit Leslie Nielsen? And don’t tell me that Emma Thompson had better things to do! She’s enough of a satirist herself to know a fat, juicy target when she sees one, even if those costume dramas did make her an icon.

Oh, well. Overdue or not, the movie we got is about as good as one could expect from the genre--parody genre--which, despite its seemingly wild and scattershot trappings, has become almost as formulaic as the movies it parodies.

Director Gary Sinyor, who proved his mettle for socially observant visual humor in “Leon the Pig Farmer” (1992), top-loads “Stiff Upper Lips” with sight gags and class resentment. The movie isn’t as elegant as “Howards End” nor as raucous as “The Naked Gun,” and the line it walks between the two extremes is a wobbly one. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dislike a movie whose heroine declares, “I want my sexual awakening and I want it now!” That would be Emily (Georgina Cates from “Illuminata”), a tightly corseted upper-class beauty, whose Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales from “Fawlty Towers”) is eager to marry her off to a properly schooled, well-heeled man of the same social background.


The best Agnes can do for the moment is Cedric Trilling (Robert Portal), a bookish and truculent sort who’s friendly with Emily’s nitwit brother Edward (Samuel West). Emily, naturally, hates Cedric, while the latter has “feelings” for Edward.

While these twits play croquet and say withering things to each other, the grimy lower classes butt heads and inhale grog at a tavern called Scum of the Earth. From their numbers emerges a lusty young rabbit skinner named George (Sean Pertwee), who is hired by Agnes as a servant to carry the family lawn as the brood tours Italy and India. Though Emily can barely imagine herself in the arms of a man several stations below her, her repression breaks down as it always does in these stories--with sweeping, neo-classical music, meaningless chases through the woods and letters exchanged from as far away as the next room.

To Sinyor’s credit, you don’t have to be familiar with the movies of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and David Lean to laugh at this stuff. As with most of those directors’ movies, however, “Stiff Upper Lips” panders to the erudition of its target audience even as it keeps its low-ball hum or humming at a mild frenzy. There’s only so much a movie can do within those constrictions. But the cast’s poker-faced daffiness makes up for a lot. It’s especially nice to see veterans Peter Ustinov and Frank Finlay in the house; the former as eccentric great-uncle Horace who’s got the hots for Agnes, the latter as the family butler who looks as sick of golden skies and green lawns as we are.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: mild profanity, sex jokes.

‘Stiff Upper Lips’

Samuel West: Edward

Robert Portal: Cedric

Prunella Scales: Aunt Agnes

Georgina Cates: Emily

Sean Pertwee: George

Peter Ustinov: Horace

Cowboy Booking International. Director Gary Sinyor. Producers Jeremy Bolt and Gary Sinyor. Screenplay Paul Simpkin and Gary Sinyor. Director of photography Simon Archer. Editor Peter Hollywood. Costume designer Stephanie Collie. Production designer Mike Grant. Music David A. Hughes and John Murphy. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

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