What with this and Paul McGuigan’s recent Gloria Grahame biopic, British cinema seems to be retconning itself a reputation for killing off Hollywood’s hall of fame greats. Very much like with Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Stan & Ollie boasts a pair of career best performances, delightful wit and heartbreaking pathos. I preferred the former but it’s a close call.
While director Jon S. Baird shoots Jeff’s Pope’s funny yet graceful script with a quiet elegance for the most part, the film’s opening and closing notes are absolute perfection. Baird introduces Steve Coogan‘s Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly’s Oliver Hardy bowler hat first, following them from dressing room to soundstage, via reels of adoring fans, in a neatly edited one-shot long take. It’s bold, audacious and clearly communicates that this is a moment in which the beloved comic duo are at the very peak of their fame. The year is 1937 and they’re in the middle of shooting Way Out West – which will appear in clips over the closing credits. Though inseparable on screen and off, Stan and Ollie – whom everyone calls Babe – are different in size, shape, manner and attitude. Whilst Laurel is a short, slim workaholic, Hardy is tall, tubby and lackadaisical. Both have multiple ex-wives and financial woes but only Stan is prepared to take a hard line on the manager – Danny Huston’s Hal Roach – who put them together but pays them far less than the likes of Chaplin and Keaton. When Stan walks, Ollie stays and each faces sixteen years of decline and fall.
It is, thus, in a dustier 1953 that the film predominantly takes its setting. Ollie’s fatter, Stan’s crinkled more wrinkles and they’ve both gone grey but what really strikes the shift home is the realisation that even their most faithful of fans have moved on. There’s tragic humour in one scene that finds an older lady fiercely arguing with a cashier selling tickets for the new Laurel and Hardy show that he can’t be doing so because ‘they retired years ago’. That said, she’s not entirely wrong. Falling from California to Newcastle, the film follows the pair’s reunion tour across the British isles, a circuit taking them from half-empty halls to sold-out theatres, thanks to word of mouth and some canny publicity, before unexpectedly transpiring to be the closing act of a glittering career. A character study first and foremost, Stan & Ollie almost floats by as more tribute than drama. Either way, it is touching and consistently engaging.
The film’s power, of course, ascends not least from the incredible performances on which its resonance depends. First instinct would be to term Reilly ‘unrecognisable’ as Hardy but it is the fact that he is quite so recognisable as the American that makes his work here so startling. And it’s not just the prosthetics – which took four hours to apply every day of the shoot. Reilly lives and breathes the role with remarkable truth to life. Not to be outdone, Coogan too impresses as both a physical presence and complex character. Reilly might have made his name in partnership with Will Ferrell – although the least said about Holmes and Watson is the better – but with Coogan he finds so natural a rhythm than one might have thought them to be reuniting too.
Instead, the film reunites Coogan with Pope, who co-wrote Philomena. Retained here is that film’s beautifully measured BAFTA-winning, along with new emphasis on slapstick and broader reaches of physical comedy. Splendidly choreographed routines are scattered in vignettes across the film and, while each is a hoot, not all are recreations of Laurel and Hardy’s own back-catalogue. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deliver, for instance, a comic pairing to rival the titular team as the over-protective Lucille Hardy and over-the-top Ida Laurel. They’re a pleasure to watch and nail killer dialogue with an ear for timing that would have made Laurel and Hardy themselves proud. It’s not all lightness and fun though – if anything, this is a surprisingly melancholic affair – and the whole cast rise to more dramatic beats with a touching depth of empathy. Those who grew up watching Laurel and Hardy might want to bring tissues.
Stan & Ollie is by no means a loud drama but makes for a perfectly charming experience. There’s a strong emotional backbone to keep it standing and divine showcase turns to flesh out the detail. As for that perfect closing note, Baird makes the most of theatre spotlights to deliver one final, frequently silhouetted, dance.