Stiff Upper Lips Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 release of Stiff Upper Lips. An unappreciated comic delight is released on a DVD that hardly does the film justice, but is still the sole way to see it

The Film

Regardless of one’s feelings about the British film industry, there is no arguing with the fact that, in recent years, two types of films (three if you count new-wave gangster films, which are tenuously linked to this) have dominated at the box office and in the overseas perception of what a Brit-flick is. The first is the costume drama, which will be set in picturesque locations and features a cast of great theatrical actors engaging in mannered and pointed banter (or, as they might put it, ‘benter’) across lavishly furnished tables. (See: Gosford Park, Enigma, Sense and Sensibility etc.) The second is the romantic comedy, of which there have been so many successes in recent years that it almost comes as a surprise to walk down a busy street in London and not find jocular members of the public engaging in witty, yet curiously poignant banter (or ‘bahnter’) while Hugh Grant runs down a street ineffectually. Therefore, when a film was made that skilfully combined these two genres, and throwing in more than a dash of Airplane! into the bargain, one might have assumed success was guaranteed. However, Stiff Upper Lips was a complete failure at the box office; given that it is one of the wittiest, most intelligent and funniest comedies of the 1990s, this stands as a disappointment.

The plot gleefully parodies the films of Merchant Ivory in general, and EM Forster adaptations in particular, as we are introduced to the wilful Emily (Cates), whose catchphrase is ‘I want my sexual awakening, and I want it now!’, and her various misadventures as she travels across Italy and India, accompanied by her formidable Aunt Agnes (Scales), ‘she of the withering laugh’, her dim-witted brother Edward (West), with a very Bridesheadian fondness for teddy bears, the splendidly useless Cecil (Portal), whose idea of polite conversation is to sneer witheringly, and then preface his cuttingly ironic statements with ‘As the poet Homer says…’, the D.H Lawrence inspired gamekeeper/handyman/lover George (Pertwee), his miserable father (Glover), whose idea of inspiring paternal love is to remind his son that they are ‘the scum of the earth, and don’t you forget it!’, and assorted other deeply strange people, including Peter Ustinov in a strangely uproarious cameo as the wealthy owner of an Indian tea plantation.

For those of us who really rather like EM Forster adaptations, the mannered ‘benter’ and Anthony Hopkins looking miserable-yet-stern, this is an absolute delight from beginning to end. Sinyor’s obvious affection for the material he is parodying shines through constantly, as the parodies of other films never even begin to lack wit, inspiration and humour; although the occasional sexual gags seem slightly vulgar, there is no denying their hilarious effectiveness, any more than there is great hilarity in watching a cast of Merchant-Ivory regulars send themselves up something rotten. At the same time, there are some remarkably sophisticated and highbrow jokes; witness, for instance, EM Forster’s work being dismissed by a character who claims ‘only to read them for the landscapes’, or a discussion of Emily’s personality and beauty conducted entirely in Latin. Perhaps rather surprisingly, the film also looks like an epic; unlike other low-budget films of this type, it genuinely does feature hundreds of extras and stunningly picturesque locations, even if the Isle of Man looks like a slightly strange substitute for Edwardian England.

The cast are mostly excellent, although Cates is rather too shrill and unsympathetic for the central character; granted, the parody of traditionally privileged stereotypes is spot on (Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View being the obvious forerunner), but it’s hard ever to warm to her. All the same, her failings are outweighed by the excellence of the rest of the cast, from the spot-on performances by West and Scales (both veterans of seemingly countless period dramas) to the wonderful cameos by Brian Glover, Frank Finlay and Peter Ustinov. Even Sean Pertwee manages to be highly entertaining throughout, which, given his subsequent record, represents a substantial level of achievement. However, the show is utterly stolen by the all-but-unknown Portal, who has made little else of any note; as the foppish, rarefied snob, he not only gets virtually all the best lines but manages to brilliantly convey the seamier side of English repression with little more than a few twitches and archly elevated eyebrows. His performance alone makes this a highly recommended purchase.

Overall, then, this is a wonderfully enjoyable experience, with perfectly timed and frequently hilarious jokes complementing a spot-on pastiche of early 20th century literary clichés. Although, perhaps, its box office failure and subsequent disappearance from public view can be explained without too much difficulty- it’s too intelligent by half, for one thing- it is still well worth making the effort to track down the R1 DVD, given that it remains unavailable in this country in any form. Shame!

The Picture

Miramax have done moderately well with the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer here, but only moderately; although there is no evidence of any print damage at any point, there is some rather irritating grain, and the colours are less clear and vivid than they ought to be, which occasionally makes the picture look rather grim and overcast. Of course, this is still miles better than any VHS or TV presentation of the film, and it is something of a blessing that this was ever presented anamorphic in the first instance.

The Sound

A rather unexciting but effective stereo mix is supplied, which does a fair but unexciting job of presenting the superb soundtrack’s mix of classical standards and wittily chosen score, as well as keeping the dialogue clear. Nothing spectacular, but it does the job, and this is hardly the sort of film that needs the texture and complexity of a DTS soundtrack.

The Extras

Nothing whatsoever, unless you count some rather dull ‘sneak peek’ trailers for other, supposedly similar films, none of which look half as fun as this one. Rather a disappointment, actually, but, apart from deleted scenes and outtakes, it’s hard to think what would actually enhance the disc.


An excellent film, and one that will appeal to all lovers of literature, British costume dramas and simply well-scripted, witty comedies, is released on an entirely unexceptional disc from Miramax; however, the most notable thing about it is that it was released at all, which we must be grateful for, especially given that no other version of the film currently exists anywhere else. Highly recommended.

Alexander Larman

Updated: May 13, 2002

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Stiff Upper Lips Review | The Digital Fix