Movie Review

'Stan & Ollie' is a touching and funny biopic of Laurel and Hardy

Jon S Baird's movie is a loving look at the fine mess the famed comedians got each other into

04 August 2019 - 00:00
John C Reilly, left, as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in 'Stan & Ollie'.
John C Reilly, left, as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in 'Stan & Ollie'.
Image: Supplied

During the golden era of Hollywood, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were two of the most popular stars of the age. They made over 100 films together and were known around the world for their slapstick genius and thin man, fat man tomfoolery. But in spite of their celebrity, when we meet them at the beginning of Jon S Baird's moving and respectful film, Stan & Ollie, the duo are not reaping the financial benefits of their success.

While shooting Way Out West in 1937, Laurel (Steve Coogan) clashes heads with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston), leaving a reluctant Hardy (John C Reilly) to continue on his own. It's clear that Hardy's failure to support his partner causes a rift in the relationship.

It's a rift that's still very much present when we jump 16 years ahead to watch the duo embark on a series of badly attended and disheartening music hall appearances in post-war Britain.

The situation is not helped by the bumbling inadequacy of the pair's distracted tour producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) and the icy relationship between their wives - Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda).

As we watch the once great, global celebrities working their act and demeaning themselves in order to promote the tour, we also see a truly great and special friendship between two men who were more than just onscreen partners.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Stan & Ollie'

Baird's film is an old school, well-executed period biopic in the vein of films like Richard Attenborough's Chaplin and Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy. It's small, but gently touching and often slyly funny.

Stan & Ollie is anchored by a pair of excellent performances from Reilly and Coogan, who have a real sense of the humanity at the heart of their characters. This gentle touch makes them easy to watch and care about.

Ultimately it's a poignant look at the end of a lifelong friendship during a moment that would turn out to be the duo's last series of appearances together. It reminds us of their dedication to their craft, the many hours of hard work it took them to create it and the pure unadulterated and uncomplicated joy that it gave to millions of people during a difficult period in history.

Laurel and Hardy's unique act is a welcome reminder of a time when celebrity and fame were less important than entertaining people

Even without the audiences they expect and while staying in fleabag hotels there are always moments in which the two men catch each other’s eye and there’s a sparkle of impish ingenuity and time for a little fun. That’s the spirit and relationship that was at the heart of Laurel and Hardy’s success and which makes their act unique — a welcome reminder of a time when celebrity and fame were less important than entertaining people.

It’s a slight but satisfying film that brings humanity and emotional engagement to a movie world filled with superheroes and action blockbusters whose performers are too busy thinking about their celebrity beyond the screen to get back to the basics and give audiences satisfyingly engaging content onscreen.

Baird’s film works on its own merits, but also as a reminder of the magic of the movies that gave us the enduringly excellent work of Laurel and Hardy. It’s still as funny now as it was then.

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