Some acts come as a package deal. Bert and Ernie. Batman and Robin. Tom and Jerry. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy AKA comedy duo, Laurel & Hardy, can be added to this list. The two comedians made over a hundred silent and talking films. They entertained audiences with their funny antics and slapstick for decades. The biopic, Stan & Ollie is a celebration of this great and often complex partnership.
This film is directed by Jon S. Baird (Filth) and instead of focusing on some glittery showbiz or their meteoric rise to fame its emphasis is on the twilight years. Just like Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, this one is about what happens when the candle of fame is dimmed but not extinguished. This means the story has some wistful and rather serious moments, in addition to the note-perfect recreations of some classic comedy sketches.
Steve Coogan stars as the workaholic and recovering alcoholic, Stan Laurel. On-screen, Laurel often played second fiddle to the bullish Oliver Hardy but in reality, Laurel was the brains of the whole operation. An avowed perfectionist, Laurel was the one writing scripts, organising the cameras and seeking funding for their films. Coogan does an amazing job here and nails Laurel’s subtle mannerisms and vocal tics.
John C. Reilly plays Babe AKA Hardy. He was the goofy and fun member of the team. He was happier going off to play golf and gamble rather than talking shop. Reilly dons an impressive fat suit and prosthetics, and disappears into the character. The performances in this film cannot be faulted, the two leads have an amazing chemistry and excellent comedic timing.
Philomena writer, Jeff Pope offers audiences a multi-faceted script. We get to see moments where life imitates art, its influence on their careers, and the pair’s legacy. There are some liberties taken with the story but this is factual for the most part. The film is mostly set in 1953 when the pair were performing in small UK theatres because some audience members had moved on to other comedians like Abbott and Costello.
Shirley Henderson plays Hardy’s wife and Nina Arianda is Ida Kitaeva, Laurel’s partner. These two women have an intriguing dynamic because the former is concerned about Oliver’s health during this gruelling tour. (Hardy passed away four years later and Laurel continued writing scripts for the pair even though he never worked with another artist and passed away himself in 1965.) Ida meanwhile, is quite a strong-willed woman attempting to keep Laurel away from the grog.
Stan & Ollie is not a comprehensive look at Laurel and Hardy’s careers but it focuses on a few key moments and memories. This is a study into the pair’s relationship, characteristics and dynamics both on and off-screen. The jokes are still funny so many years on and the nostalgic pieces showcase some conflicting emotions from their later career. In sum, come for the comedy, stay for the heart and enjoy this sweet and emotional look at one long and enduring friendship.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Stan & Ollie arrives in Australian cinemas February 21st.