Stan & Ollie: What a charming fine mess we've gotten ourselves into
In the interests of transparency, I am a fan. I have my Dad to thank for introducing me to Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Tommy Cooper and, of course, Laurel and Hardy. So I come to this film with a bias. But that bias also means I have high expectations - I expect my heroes to be treated well. I need not have worried. Director John S Baird and writer Jeff Pope (who wrote Philomena, also starring Steve Coogan) have managed to craft a wonderful homage to the comic duo, develop their story and show us a side of them we had not known. Both director and writer have also introduced Stan and Ollie's wives and woven them into the story such that they are an essential ingredient. Plus, the film is warm, funny, hilarious, sad and emotional.
Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly deliver superb performances that capture the expressions and physicality of the star comedians without ever descending into caricature. They never strain for laughs but are consistently amusing. As Laurel, who wrote the comic bits and was the more tortured star, Coogan communicates a tremendous amount of anxiety and discord in a slight downturn of the lips. Equally subtle and emotionally grounded, Reilly portrays Hardy as a big man with a light touch, so laid-back so as to be almost reckless.
The film finds them on a tour of the UK and Ireland, some sixteen years after their peak success. They are trying to get a new film, based on the legend of Robin Hood, green-lit by Hollywood, with the hopes that a big-shot producer will see their show in London. The tour opens to very small audiences and ticket sales however the duo turn things around and by the time they reach Dublin for their final ever performance together, they are playing to packed houses. Indeed, the welcome they receive in Dublin is highlighted in the film together with the local church bells playing the Dance of the Cuckoo!
It's clear from the film that the duo are past their prime, not just in their career but also in their relationship. Like a married couple that stopped fighting long ago, their exchanges hint at buried resentments, muffled irritations and yet, an abiding love. Doing their gentle dance routines or farcical double-door bits, they are perfect together. Once they go offstage, they have chemistry — but it’s complicated.
There are some in-jokes which only fans of Laurel and Hardy will pick up on, such as when they are pushing one of their trunks up a stairs in a train station. With a nod to The Music Box, the trunk slides back down the steps and Ollie turns to Stan and asks: do we really need that trunk?
Ollie's poor health is never far from the fore and sadly he passed away no too long after the tour.
There is another comedy duo present in the film and they are the wives played by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. They have their own story of jealousy and pettiness which plays out on the screen and ends when they are in the audience at the final show in Dublin. The moment perfectly echoes what is happening onstage and it is simply one of many touching and heart-felt moments in the film.
In these days of Fake News, Brexit and our general inhumanity to each other, this is a warm hug of a film. Even if you have never watched a Laurel and Hardy film or are not even sure who they are, go see this film. You will learn about friendship, love and the human condition. You will laugh and you will cry. We can ask for nothing more.