Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Stan & Ollie (2018) is a life-affirming, heart-warming film which embraces the viewer into the latter years of perhaps the most iconic comedy duo the world has ever seen. Two friends: initially thrown together on the whims of a film producer, and who loved and depended on each other personally as well as professionally. There are moments of tenderness, sensitively played by Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy respectively, that feel borne out of a very real relationship rather than being over-sentimentalised. It helps that the lead actors are perfectly matched. Reilly is so well cast as the charming but insecure Hardy that one often forgets he is not really the man himself. It is not only the impressive prosthetics that create this uncanny illusion, but the gentleness with which Reilly quite literally inhabits the role. Coogan’s melancholic eyes portray Stan Laurel with a lingering sadness. Even when clowning, one senses Laurel’s dissatisfaction with the lull in his professional fortunes, and the pressure of keeping their revered reputation intact.
The film goes a long way to express how much the two meant to each other ... despite their waning popularity.
Some biopics of this nature fall into the trap of feeling like a TV movie transferred to the big screen. Not so with Stan & Ollie. As we track our lead characters at the beginning of the film, wise-cracking their way through a replica of the studio set for Way Out West (1937), emerging into a sun-drenched Californian backlot, we feel we have been dropped head first into Hollywood. At the peak of their popularity, they are a pair clearly loved by their audience and their peers (aside from Stan's antagonistic relationship with producer Hal Roach, played by the familiar face of Danny Huston). In their later years, embarking on a tour of Britain, they are affectionately remembered as part of a bygone era, overtaken in prominence by the likes of Abbott and Costello and newcomer Norman Wisdom. The film goes a long way to express how much the two meant to each other, and to their loyal audience, despite their waning popularity and the ever-present elephant in the room of Oliver having made a film without his long-standing partner.
Plaudits must be awarded too, for Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel, a double act in themselves, who pepper the film with sarcastic retorts, and are endlessly protective and supportive of their husbands. Ida, particularly, is hilariously frosty when it comes to dealing with endearingly gushing theatre promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).
[The film] tells a largely unknown part of their story, and offers much in the way of examining these two stars in the autumn of their years.
A friend of mine recently said to me that for him Laurel and Hardy are a bit of an enigma – he is familiar with their work, but has never actually seen any of it. I have seen a couple of their short films (the famous The Music Box (1932) among them, which is charmingly referenced several times throughout Stan & Ollie), but Laurel and Hardy are so much part of the fabric of cinema that I feel I have seen far more of their work than I actually have. How pleasing it is then that the film, based on the book ‘Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours’ by A.J. Marriot, tells a largely unknown part of their story, and offers much in the way of examining these two stars in the autumn of their years. The film makes clear that Laurel was very much the creative force in the partnership, writing and tweaking scripts and opening up film project opportunities (or not), whilst also gently reminding Hardy of his cues as necessary. Charmingly, we are told that Laurel also kept writing material for the comedy duo long after the death of his partner, as if to keep their legacy alive. Ultimately, they were inseparable.
This is a fine film they’ve got themselves in.
Stan & Ollie is a gentle and never less than absorbing character study of these legendary figures. It is refreshing to see a film that revels in affection rather than antagonism, and manages to be sweet without being saccharine. Coogan and Reilly embody their personas so effortlessly, that it is a real joy to be in their presence, much like it was for Laurel and Hardy themselves, and there is a tangible warmth in their recreation of familiar skits and routines. This is a fine film they’ve got themselves in.