Director: Jon S Baird
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C Reilly
Release date: Out now
Reviewer: Charlotte Harrison
Laurel and Hardy are, of course, one of the most definitive acts in comedy, and in cinema in general. Originally two solo acts, they teamed up in 1927 and carried on the partnership for nearly 30 years, appearing together in 107 films. But this biopic of the pair chooses to focus on them during their twilight years, and the film works wonderfully all the more for it. Forget ‘one last job’. Instead, what we get here is one last tour.
Stan & Ollie opens in 1937, during the peak of the pair’s fame. In a lovely tracking shot we follow the duo – played here by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly – doing a ‘walk and talk’ through a film set. They are stars, that much is clear. And whilst it’s also clear they get along well, it’s not clear to what extent. No matter, as they swear to ‘stick together’. As the beautiful golden Hollywood curtain titles knowingly point out, ‘they had reached the top’. There’s only one way from there, and we all know which way that is.
Sixteen years later they’re in Newcastle, doing a tour of tiny theatres in small towns as a means for drumming up publicity in the hopes of making a new film (in this case one inspired by Robin Hood). The rapport between the pair is frostier than before, more formal and forced than it used to be. We don’t yet know why. But it’s clear that resentments are there that have lingered under the surface for far too long.
What proceeds is a beautiful and heart-warming tale of something that started as a partnership and eventually became a friendship. Coogan (as Laurel) and John C Reilly (as Hardy) are magnificent in their roles, too. They walk, talk and sound like the household names the public feel like they knew, even if they didn’t really. That’s where the film truly excels, setting it apart from the less successful biopics we’ve had in recent years. It’s as old school as the bowler hats of its figureheads; it shows not tells everything we ‘need’ to know.
This is a thoughtful reflection on the nature of partnerships, the stresses of being on the road along with the impact of times and everything else changing around you whilst you find yourself desperately trying to catch up. Emotion is generated not from showy set pieces, but from quieter, softer, more believable moments – in the tender exchanges between the two men, and the time they have with their respective wives. Shirley Henderson is wonderful as Lucille Hardy, and Nina Arianda is impeccable comedically as Ida Kitaeva Laurel. Neither Laurel nor Hardy are glorified; instead, they become fully realised and depicted as the real people they were. They were a team, and the film is a great tribute to their exceptional craft.
It’s harder to make them laugh than to make them cry. Yet this insightful, beautiful and sentimental, never saccharine, film manages to do both. You’ll be watching with something in your eye, a lump in your throat, whilst wearing a big ol’ smile.