Some films want to frighten you, some want to make you cry, some want inspire righteous fury, and some just want to give you a big hug. Stan and Ollie absolutely falls into that final category, a warm-hearted study of fading celebrity, comedy history, and, most importantly, undying friendship. It doesn’t set out to shock or surprise, but you’ll find yourself swept along in its gentle currents nonetheless. Director Jon S Baird’s last film was Irvine Welsh adaptation Filth, but carries none of that edginess into this, content instead with a respectful reverence for his lead couple.
Rather than covering Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C Reilly) in their heyday, Jeff Pope’s script finds them in 1953, embarking on a theatre tour of post-war Britain in an attempt to encourage the funding for a doomed Robin Hood movie. As the tour gets ever more successful, Stan and Ollie’s underlying frustrations with one another start bubbling to the surface, but so too does the realisation that, despite years of not working together, they still very much love each other. The title itself is a clue; this film is about the men, not the legends, and their relationship.
Coogan and Reilly are perfectly cast, and their ability to imitate classic Laurel and Hardy skits is nothing short of astounding, especially as Reilly is working within a brutal, and entirely convincing, fat suit. Timed to perfection, their stage shows are magical recreations of the real thing, a summoning act that is almost eerie and makes the film absolutely essential for any Laurel and Hardy fan. But the performances go further and deeper than this, too, and Coogan in particular paints a complete picture of his subject. He’s always been a master of hilariously depressing characters, but this is a new side to him – weary melancholy – that has earned him a BAFTA nomination.
Surprisingly, Stan and Ollie do not grab the most laughs in what is a funny film. They’re given a more dramatic arc, leaving the best jokes for their wives Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel (Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda). They’re a double act all their own, whip smart and amusingly antagonistic, firing off gag-dense conversations and getting all the film’s best jokes. It’s a welcome surprise, and Henderson and Arianda are fantastic in the roles, their full comic potential utilised while also leaving room for quieter moments.
Visually, Stan and Ollie does a great job not only capturing the look of early ‘50s Britain, but also the aesthetic of early ‘50s cinema in general, especially in the exteriors. From the opening tracking shot through a bustling studio backlot, Baird captures some of the unique joys of Golden Age Hollywood, even when he has to transplant them to a rainy corner of Newcastle. The score is similarly old-school, and though it takes a while to get used to, it eventually overpowers you with its classical charm.
As a biopic, Stan and Ollie isn’t exactly reinventing the genre, but its superb leads and their tender chemistry, as well as plenty of laughs, keep it zippy and entertaining throughout. Platonic friendships with as much love as this are rarely played so sincerely, and it’s in this sincerity that Stan and Ollie finds its strength.