“Stiff Upper Lips” is a very silly, but also very funny, sendup of True Brit/Merchant Ivory movies that with the right bright, aggressive marketing could raise belly laughs beyond home turf. Reception will depend on how far the refs travel in various territories, but this third feature by writer-director Gary Sinyor (co-helmer of “Leon the Pig Farmer”) is an astutely cast, slick package that’s way beyond the average “Carry On” movie in sophistication. Audiences at its London fest screenings responded warmly to the pic, which has been in distrib limbo since Rank bit the dust earlier this year. Homevid and tube potential both look rosy.
Starting off with a mild parody of “Chariots of Fire,” movie soon slips into jocular gear as young, upper-class twit Edward (Samuel West) arrives with his Homer-spouting friend Cedric (Robert Portal) at the family manse, Ivory Hall (yup, it’s that kind of picture). The time is 1908, during the last blast of the British Empire.
Edward plans to pair off Cedric with his sister, Emily (Georgina Cates), a 22-year-old virgin whose buds are just waiting to be popped. But Cedric, who prefers the novels of E.M. Forster, doesn’t look like the man for the job; instead, it is George (Sean Pertwee), the well-endowed son of a local peasant (Brian Glover), who sets her hormones racing when he rescues her one day from drowning.Emily’s snooty Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales), still backing the bookish Cedric, suggests a restorative trip to Italy, and, with George tagging along as a servant, the whole bunch repairs to warmer climes. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the inevitable happens between Emily and George, though she still refuses to marry him because of their class differences. Tiring of pasta land, Aunt Agnes suggests another trip, to “somewhere more English” — India — where she, too, has the starch taken out of her corsets by a leering old tea-planter, Horace (Peter Ustinov).
Though the script sounds terminally dire on paper, it plays extremely well for most of the time. Mixing sight gags with film-buff jokes (including an out-of-genre jab at “The Shining”), and never trying to squeeze more than one laugh out of a gag at a time, Sinyor keeps the picture moving along and production values high — one elaborate “Gandhi” joke lasts only a few seconds. Script also juggles the various characters (and their sub-stories) with skill, giving all the protagonists an equal share of screen time while not losing sight of the main story. Only in the 30-minute India seg does the script lose its edge, as plot maneuvers take precedence over character humor.
Casting is tiptop, and has much to do with the pic’s success. Scales, as the barking mad aunt, steals every scene she’s in, but she’s run a close second by the young Cates (“An Awfully Big Adventure,” “Frankie Starlight”), who handles the sex gags with a delicious mixture of aristocratic dumbness and open-eyed innocence. West and Portal are on the button as the Forster-ish friends, Pertwee just right as the handsome, Lawrentian gamekeeper, and veteran Frank Finlay ditto as the upstairs-downstairs butler who urinates in the family soup to ease his humiliations. Weak link, surprisingly, is Ustinov, who’s far too wink-wink knowing in his perf — unlike the rest of the cast, who play their roles to the hilt but always straight-faced.
Stephanie Collie’s costumes are consistently right (and pointed) without being exaggerated, and Peter Hollywood’s editing tight as a drum. David A. Hughes and John Murphy’s score is bright and, in its use of classical extracts, humorously referential. The £3.4 million ($5.7 million) pic was the second to take advantage of tax-break schemes on the Isle of Man, which stands in fine for rural mainland England.