The DVDs Audiences Forgot: the repressed English

In the first of an ongoing series of articles about underrated and ignored DVDs that deserve another look, Alexander Larman has examined a couple of films about one of his favourite subjects, the repressed historical English.

Every week, countless DVDs are released in America, Europe, the Far East and the UK, and even the keenest film fan with limitless funds and an incredibly eclectic taste in cinema could only afford to buy a tiny percentage of them. In the vast majority of cases, this is unlikely to be much of a problem- obscure children’s cartoons and Z-list straight-to-DVD ‘true life’ stories are hardly on anyone’s wish list- but there are some titles that a lack of publicity and box-office neglect mean that some remarkably good films are all but ignored in the rush for consumers to pick up the likes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

Therefore, this column is intended as a semi-regular guide to DVDs that have been either neglected, ignored or just forgotten, from the so-called special editions that really were special, through the bare-bones DVDs of really interesting films, to the underrated releases that just got lost in the shuffle. I’ll be trying, and hopefully succeeding, to look at the films themselves, why they’re not being watched more, the current state of their DVD releases.

At first- unsurprisingly- I’ll be concentrating on releases that I’ve either reviewed already, or are about to review soon. However, if anyone has a suggestion for a DVD that they feels really deserves to be listed as ‘a forgotten gem’, or even that just needs another look, e-mail me at [email protected] as to what’s so good about their favourite neglected gem, and, if it’s convincing enough, I’ll feature it in the next column!

Therefore, onto this week’s neglected DVDs. The theme this week is, probably not for the last time, the repressed English:

Stiff Upper Lips
As I said in my review, this is one of those remarkably rare films that works brilliantly well as both a genuinely thigh-slappingly hilarious comedy, and also as a wry piece of comment on the British Merchant-Ivory genre of filmmaking. If we’re really going to town, you might almost say that it’s about as historically accurate a picture of Edwardian England as anything written by EM Forster or Virginia Woolf; after all, while Mrs Dalloway and Where Angels Fear to Tread are brilliant examinations of the middle-to-upper class psyche, they don’t have a scene where a young woman has to have her bodice tied by a runaway horse.
Unfortunately- and this is why it’s in the ‘neglected’ category- the film was shelved for years by its distributors, who lived up to the traditional stereotype of believing that a costume film was ‘uncommercial’ and eventually released it on around a couple of dozen cinema screens in summer 1998 (in, unsurprisingly, the height of the football), with minimal advertising; it was expected to flop, and, without any word of mouth, it soon did. The reviews hardly helped; Alexander Walker may have raved about it in the Evening Standard, but the likes of Empire and Total Film were mostly contemptuous, preferring to focus on the likes of Armageddon and even- God help us- Six Days, Seven Nights. As a result of making no money at the box office, it has yet to receive a British DVD or video release; to add insult to injury, it has yet to be shown on terrestrial TV, given that it was one of the few British films of recent years not to have had any backing from the BBC or Channel 4.
The R1 DVD is bare-bones, but perfectly adequate technically, and thankfully anamorphic. Barring a miracle of some sort, it looks unlikely that Gary Sinyor (who has never made anything remotely as good as this, before or since) is going to get involved in a DVD release of any sort in this country, and the chances of an independent producer like Criterion or Anchor Bay picking it up looks equally remote. However, the current version can be picked up without any difficulty from most US retailers at a comparatively reasonable price.

The Serpent’s Kiss
From the 1920s to the mid 17th century is something of a leap, it would appear, but the time shift can be explained. The subject of a great deal of pre-release hype at Cannes and elsewhere before its premiere, this beautifully filmed tale of a young Dutch gardener (Ewan McGregor) attempting to construct the perfect garden for his employer (Pete Postlethwaite), while fending off the attentions of his wife (Greta Scacchi), daughter (Carmen Chaplin) and the malevolent local fop (Richard E Grant) manages to work beautifully as a mixture of highbrow literary pastiche, as pitched somewhere between Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract and the poetry of Andrew Marvell, and altogether more down-to-earth comedy, mostly thanks to Grant’s hysterical performance, which resembles nothing so much as Withnail in a wonderfully frilly wig. With the starry cast, a stunning visual sense (thanks to the great cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot, making his directorial debut) and its wittily intelligent script, this should have been at least a medium-sized success.
Unfortunately, the film’s genre-hopping nature meant that critics who expected a zany farce were as disappointed as those who expected a deep and serious piece of quasi-intellectual analysis of the art of gardening. Frankly, it’s hard to sympathise with those who expected the latter. All the same, it met with little commercial interest at Cannes, had a cursory release in a few European countries, and eventually wound up going straight to DVD in Britain and America, even as Ewan McGregor half-heartedly sang the film’s praises to anyone who would listen; unfortunately, as with Nightwatch, Nora and A Life Less Ordinary, it didn’t do any noticeable good. However, thanks to the wonders of the digital format, it was eventually released on a not-bad DVD in this country; unfortunately, it is non-anamorphic and lacks in-depth extras, but partially makes up for it by having some unusually lengthy and well-written production notes which, unfortunately, do not extend to being so well-written that they attempt to discuss why the film failed to succeed at the box office.
It’s not perfect- at times it becomes a bit precious and Grant’s performance teeters on the side of hammy camp more than once- but it’s stuffed with wit and imagination, and is a damn more fun than dozens of braindead blockbusters. It may be a serpent’s kiss, but it’s got plenty of bite as well; given that it’s easily available for around £10 or so if you shop around, it’s well worth picking up, and even more worthy of a rental for those of a curious disposition.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a couple of films by the man the critics, public and wig-makers everywhere love to hate, Kevin Costner, one of which may well be The Postman…of course, given Consignia’s current troubles, maybe the idea of a balding would-be actor delivering the mail efficiently is something to aspire to now, rather than back away from!

Alexander Larman

Updated: May 16, 2002

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