Stan & Ollie

Posted: January 24, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon S. Baird. Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson.

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In 1937, and at the height of their fame Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) struggle with their boss Hal Roach over their contracts. Stan wants the two of them to jump ship and get a new deal somewhere else, but whilst his contract is up for renewal, Babe is tied to Roach and chooses instead to allow himself to be paired with another comic in a film about an elephant, much to Stan’s dismay, and, although the two will eventually reunite, this causes friction between them.

In 1953, and with their glory days far behind them, the duo embark on a music hall tour of Britain in order to make some money whilst they work on new material for a Robin Hood film. Whilst the tour is initially greeted by lukewarm crowds, after prompting by their promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) and despite Babe’s obvious health issues, the two agree to a gruelling series of public appearances, and the crowds improve.

Joined by their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Arianda) the tour continues to be a success, but with Babe’s health an issue, and increasing uncertainty over the future of the movie, old wounds reopen and fractures in the partnership are created that may never be healed.

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The tour takes its toll

Let’s get the “negatives” out of the way first. This isn’t a film that will surprise you, there are no twists, not even an antagonist really, unless age or the fickle nature of fame count. It’s a lean film that at times feels a trifle lightweight.

All of that is true, but none of that stops Stan & Ollie from being truly glorious.

I grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on the telly with my dad, he loved them to bits and so it has to be said that I was perhaps predisposed to love this film anyway, but I think it could have failed miserably if it hadn’t been made with a good heart, and this film clearly was. It glorifies Laurel and Hardy without ever deifying them. They’re flawed men, each with their vices, and each with failed marriages in their wake, yet they’re both fully rounded, believable character you can empathise with, and they clearly have great affection for each other, despite, as they say, being two men who were just thrown together by Hal Roach because one was fat and the other skinny.

Coogan and Reilly are superb. Their mannerisms are spot on, and their chemistry is joyful to behold. Of the two I think Coogan shades it, if only because Reilly is ever so slightly hampered by his prosthetics at times, whilst Coogan has a bit more freedom, but much like the originals, it wouldn’t matter how good one was if the other wasn’t up to snuff, and this is a film of partnerships—and not just the partnership between Stan and Ollie, there’s also the partnership of Stan and Ida, and Babe and Lucille, and in fact the pairing of Lucille and Ida, and however good Coogan and Reilly are, and however much this is their film, credit must go to Henderson and  Arianda for their performances because both women are excellent, each playing a woman fiercely loyal to her husband, and fiercely dismissive of the other,  and frankly if someone wanted to make a prequel from the perspective of their ocean crossing to get to England, with the two women sparring the whole time, I’d pay good money to see it.

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Two double acts for the price of one.

The direction and set design are wonderful, evoking 1950s’ Britain to a tee, and whilst probably lost on US audiences, the running gag about Norman Wisdom did make me laugh, and this is a film full of laughs, albeit many of them are very gentle, and quite melancholic.

The script is touching without ever veering towards oversentimentality, and it really sneaks up on you. I didn’t expect to be fighting back tears at the end, but blimey if this film didn’t hit me everywhere it counted, and I only wish my dad could have seen it. I think he’d have liked it too.

Funny, sad, sweet and just plain beautiful, this is a loving tribute to a great double act. Sure, it could have been longer, but then so could Stan and Ollie’s career, and as the axiom goes, always leave them wanting more…

Unit stills photography

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