Widely regarded as the most iconic comedy double-act in film history, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy enjoyed a hugely successful film career which saw them become household names and as instantly recognisable as Charlie Chaplin on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Making over 107 between 1927 and 1950 together and separately, the duo went on to entertain millions of people around the globe thanks to their inimitable wit and perfectly timed routines of double entendre and slapstick humour, until they went their separate ways under a dark cloud.
In his new film Stan & Ollie, director Jon S. Baird (Filth, 2013), tells the story of the popular duo’s variety hall tour of Britain in 1953 which came over a decade after the two former friends had decided to part ways and pursue their own film projects separately. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Riley in the principal roles, the film is strangely reminiscent of Paul McGuigan’s beautifully observed 2017 film Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool in the way in which it manages to transport old Hollywood glamour onto a grimy post-war British setting to tell a deeply touching story about global fame and what comes after that fame starts to fade.
Arriving in Newcastle to start their long awaited tour on a rainy English winter night, Stan (Coogan) and Ollie (Riley) soon realise that what was sold to them as a glamorous few months touring the country was nothing more than a series of embellishments and white lies peddled by slimy impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), a man of little charm who only seems interested in the financial gain of the ill-fated project. It soon transpires that Stan and Ollie have been struggling financially and desperate to salvage what is left of their career by any means necessary and have only agreed to the tour in the hope of convincing a mysterious film producer to finance their new film, a comedic reimagining of the legend of Robin Hood.
Baird offers an expertly paced and deeply touching narrative in a film which isn’t afraid of wearing its heart on its sleeve from the get go. Opting to highlight the complicated relationship between two men who still knew one another inside out despite having spent years apart, the director is able to convey the immense talent of two comedy greats who never quite managed to end on a high note.
While both Riley and Coogan put in two hugely impressive turns as the legendary duo, it is in fact Coogan’s impeccable comedic flare which comes out on top in this hugely disarming and genuinely touching biopic. And while both actors stayed away from imitating their characters’ physical attributes and demeanours fully, there is a definite air of familiarity oozing out of their deliveries which you can’t help but fall head over heels for.
Elsewhere, Shirley Henderson does an incredible job in bringing the fast-paced feistiness of the inimitable Lucille Hardy, while Nina Arianda is truly riotous as the thick Russian accented Ida Kitaeva Laurel.
On the whole, Stan & Ollie does more than what is expected from it by allowing its audience to spent just over 90 minutes with two iconic comedy personalities and by allowing us to finally get to know who they really were. A charming and beautifully shot film which benefits greatly from Laurie Rose’s unequalled and impressive cinematography.
Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from Friday January 11th