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Film Review: Stan & Ollie

16 January 19 words: Ashley Carter

Laurel and Hardy, the most famous comedy duo in the world, attempt to kick-start their flailing careers on a gruelling UK theatre tour in Jon S. Baird's beautiful biopic...

Director: Jon S. Baird

Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson

Running time: 97 mins

Like millions of other people, I’ve always had a strong affinity for Laurel and Hardy. Some of my happiest memories came from a childhood spent being introduced to their work by a Dad that had been shown it by his Father, so timeless and cross-generational was their unique brand of visual comedy.  

So naturally, it was with a mixed sense of excitement and trepidation that I reacted to the news that the pair were to be given the movie biopic treatment. Would their story transfer to the big screen? Robert Downey Jr. had been sublime as Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s gorgeous 1992 film about the silent film star, but for every great biopic, there are at least ten ugly, truncated and frankly shitty retellings of people’s lives, such as Diana, All Eyez on Me and Jobs, for example. So it was with unbridled delight that I left the cinema screen having seen the care, passion and beauty with which this story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been told. 

There are a hundred ways in which I could start listing off the good aspects of this film, but it feels right to begin with the performances. As director John S. Baird’s first choice for the roles of Stan and Ollie, Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly’s casting is inspired. Their likeness owes a lot to the remarkable prosthetic and make-up work (Reilly spent three hours getting made-up into a ‘fat suit’ every day), but also the dedication shown by both actors to so accurately portray the comedy duo. Everything, from their mannerisms, the unique timbre of their voices down to the way they perform their on-stage routines is uncanny, leaving me with the increasingly unique feeling of pure escapism: I wasn’t watching two great actors pretending to be Laurel and Hardy, I was watching Laurel and Hardy. For Reilly, an actor who has made a career of crossing between drama and comedy with adroit dexterity, the role seems custom made. And Coogan has never been better in a role it seems he was born to play. The two actors transmit the feeling of brotherhood and genuine love shared between Laurel and Hardy with palpable authenticity.

As likely to appeal to the most hardcore of their fans as it is to those who have never seen their work

Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Stan & Ollie doesn’t attempt to cover the peaks and troughs of their entire career, rather putting one particular chapter of their relationship under the microscope, and exploring it with faithful candour  That chapter is the last of their live UK stage tour in 1953, where the pair embarked on a series of live shows to half-empty theatres in order to make enough money to last until their next film project is green lit. Their popularity has waned significantly, but their bond is still strong. However, a lifelong professional and personal connection of friendship and reliance is tested as the tour encounters further problems, and perceived betrayals (in the form of Ollie choosing to make a film without Stan some years previously) threaten to drive a wedge between the pair. 

As a story of a world famous comedy pair entering the autumnal years of both their careers, Stan & Ollie is sumptuously drenched in luscious golds and browns, with the aesthetic attention to detail paid to the characters matched by the sets and locations. Tonally, it strikes a perfect balance between humour and pathos. It’s funny when it needs to be, incorporating elements of their trademark slapstick comedy into the action, most notably with the large trunk the pair are forced to lug around with them. But more importantly, and more effectively, it creates a believably sincere level of emotion, exploring the themes of regret, fading popularity and personal tragedy with a tangible sense of melancholy. It’s the epitome of bittersweet.

Ostensibly, Stan & Ollie is a love story about the greatest comedy duo of all time, and does a great service to their legacy. As likely to appeal to the most hardcore of their fans as it is to those who have never seen their work, it’s a film made with a level of care, sincerity and tenderness that is increasingly rare in contemporary cinema. I absolutely loved it.   

Did you know? Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly also starred together in Holmes and Watson. Stan & Ollie is currently John C. Reilly's highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, whereas Holmes & Watson is his lowest. 

Stan & Ollie is screening at Broadway Cinema now

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