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Review: Stan & Ollie touchingly recreates the laughter-filled world of Laurel & Hardy

PUBLISHED: 10:38 14 January 2019

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy shooting Way Out West  in the bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy shooting Way Out West in the bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

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Stan and Ollie is not a conventional Laurel and Hardy bio-pic. Arts editor Andrew Clarke is impressed with this big screen exploration of friendship

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy touring Britain in the  bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC FilmsSteve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy touring Britain in the bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

Stan & Ollie; dir: Jon S Baird; starring: Steve Coogan, John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones, John Henshaw. Cert: PG 1hr 40m

We first meet Stan and Ollie on a cold, wet night in Newcastle as they are about to book themselves into a hotel which, like them, has seen better days. This is 1953 and this was to be Laurel and Hardy’s last hurrah. Their glory days are behind them but for British fans this is a rare opportunity to see the great men perform some of the greatest routines live on stage.

Sadly, it seems that the world has moved on and the great duo play to half empty houses. If attendances don’t pick up then the tour’s grand finale at The London Palladium looks in doubt.

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC FilmsSteve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

But, Stan & Ollie isn’t a sad film. It’s a film filled with great joy and tenderness but also a film which is not afraid to probe beneath the surface and explore what made these two funny men tick.

The film features two bravura performances from Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the titular funnymen with Coogan, in particular, getting Stan’s smile and voice exactly right.

The script by Jeff Pope, who also worked on Philomena with Coogan, beautifully explores the complex friendship, rivalry and deep affection the two men had for one another. Setting the film at the end of their careers allows time for the petty jealousies and hurts to have built up and once Ollie has his first heart attack for everything to be put into perspective.

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy on set shooting Way Out West in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC FilmsSteve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy on set shooting Way Out West in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

Director Jon Baird does well recreating the down-at-heel look of 1950s Britain as Laurel and Hardy crawl their way round Britain’s regional theatres but this is not a sad story of fading stars. Stan and Ollie were always well loved and they were always optimistic and about the future.

Stan was always the creative genius, constantly thinking up new stories, gags and routines. Even on this tour he is hustling London producers to finance a new film about Robin Hood. We even get to see them in their prime, as flashbacks take us onto the set at Hal Roach studios as they shoot scenes for Way Out West, and Stan, inspired by Chaplin, is demanding creative and financial control. Ollie, meanwhile, is happy to be out on the golf course and turning up when everything is ready.

Stan Laurel won his battle for creative freedom but never was allowed to own and profit from his ideas. His contract with Roach expired before Ollie’s and we see that Hardy’s teaming with now-forgotten comedian Harry Langdon for a single movie hit Laurel hard and this resentment resurfaces on this final British tour.

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy with their wives Lucille and Ida (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC FilmsSteve Coogan and John C Reilly as the classic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy with their wives Lucille and Ida (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) in the touching bio-pic Stan & Ollie Photo: BBC Films

It’s a complex relationship but the tensions fall away when we see the pair working together on stage. Even this late on we see their collective joy as Stan works out a new routine, set on a railway station, where the pair constantly miss each other thanks to impeccable timing.

But, this is not a two man film. Rufus Jones shines as British theatre legend Bernard Delfont, the man financing their farewell British tour, while Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda create their own double-act as Stan and Ollie’s sniping wives Lucille and Ida – their sharp dialogue is brilliantly delivered as they trade barbs and there is a fantastic running joke as Ida always refuses to sit next to Delfont.

Stan and Ollie is a loving examination of a long running personal friendship and professional partnership which doesn’t shy away from the misunderstandings and a subtle hurts which fester and grow, unspoken, over the years but on the other hand clearly shows that when the chips are down Stan and Ollie had huge affection for one another. They understood each others strengths and weaknesses. It’s a film where just as much is said through looks and gestures as it is through dialogue. It’s not your standard chronologically told bio-pic like Bohemian Rhapsody but rather a much more thoughtful, nuanced portrait of two, well-lived lives.

Stan and Ollie was previewed with thanks to Ipswich Cineworld.

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