At Cambridge University, upper class students Edward (Samuel West) and Cedric (Robert Portal) are connected, and not simply because they messed up a race around the quad by getting in the way. Cedric is regarded as a possible suitor for Edward's sister Emily (Georgina Cates) who spends all her time tightly corseted on a country estate in England, waited on hand and foot by servants and fussed over by her maiden aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales). Emily is not quite as convinced as her aunt that at twenty-two her body clock is ticking and she should be married soon, and is even less convinced that poetry-quoting Cedric is the right man for her. But what of the working classes?
"People like us, we're the scum of the earth!" proudly proclaims Brian Glover as an example of said class, and should give you some idea of the broad nature of the comedy, penned by director Gary Sinyor and Paul Simpkin (with additional gags by other hands). Stiff Upper Lips was a much-needed antidote to British heritage cinema, including but not exclusive to the works of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, two non-Brits who took it upon themselves to make films that pandered to the idea of English culture as the world would prefer to see it. By the late nineties, as audiences had been given the likes of A Room with a View and Howards End, many had had enough of them.
Not that Merchant-Ivory made bad films, exactly, their productions were exquisitely put together and not everyone wants to see a movie featuring a car chase, after all, but for a while it seemed they were the only British-themed cinema to be welcomed with unironic praise from critics and a certain type of rarefied filmgoer alike, and Sinyor and company evidently believed there was pomposity to be pricked even as they made their own parody look as ravishing as the sources. It appeared there was some degree of loyalty to the duo, as the Helena Bonham Carter role did not go to her even though she had proven herself able to play comedy, it went to Cates, another English rose with a somewhat different career path which defined her as... interesting.
She had changed her name halfway through her career and pretended to be a sixteen-year-old for the ingenue part she secured in An Awfully Big Adventure (somehow nobody recognised her, despite being fairly successful under her real name). This suggested mischief in her personality that was assuredly tapped into here as she played it prim enough to be acceptable as a Carter-style heroine, yet also showing up how ridiculous such women could be when for all their adherence to polite society all they had on their mind was sex, not that they would have readily admitted it. But then, every character in this had sex on the brain, sending up the repressive state of their targets with unabashed abandon. For instance, while Cedric and Edward seem to be best friends, we can tell their admiration for each other goes a little deeper.
And that's not all they’d like to go a little deeper, a nod to Merchant-Ivory's paean to frightfully proper man-on-man action that was Maurice the decade before. None of these heritage efforts went unnoticed by this film's absurdism: you also had Chariots of Fire spoofed, plus Ghandi, Enchanted April and Remains of the Day, basically all those films you could safely watch with your own maiden aunt, and television reliables such as The Jewel in the Crown and Upstairs Downstairs. Literature was also sent up: Sean Pertwee's manservant George, the object of Emily's barely admitted affections, was a stand-in for Lady Chatterley's Lover, really you did not need to have experienced all these works to get the joke, that the British were essentially ludicrous and while they recognised that themselves by chortling at comedies like Stiff Upper Lips, it was important others should recognise that too, especially in the Commonwealth. With old pros like Peter Ustinov and Frank Finlay indulging themselves in the ribaldry, this was a resounding success if you just wanted a good, very silly laugh. Music by David A. Hughes and John Murphy (lots of classical extracts, too).
[Network's Blu-ray has the trailer as an extra. The film itself looks spiffing, one of the best-looking parodies around.]