Despite strong early buzz, Stan & Ollie, from director Jon S. Baird, was a film to be approached with caution. Principal photography took place nearly two years ago – rarely a good sign in films that are light on visual effects. It was also known to depict the final performances of the legendary Laurel and Hardy. As there is no surviving footage of any of their performances during that 1953 UK tour, and photos of the duo from that era certainly show them as far more aged than in their heyday, there was no way to know whether we’d be getting a celebration, or watching a grisly demise.
The film starts with a prologue from 1937, as the two men are walking to the set to perform their famous dance routine from Way Out West. We learn that both men have burned through multiple marriages, though Oliver (John C. Reilly) is about to marry again, to Lucille (Shirley Henderson), a script girl for Hal Roach Studios. Stan (Steve Coogan) is about to be out of contract and is in dispute with Roach (Danny Huston). Though short, this scene sows the seeds of their demise, as Hardy remains under contract; which it is made clear he will be forced to honour – with or without Stan Laurel.
The film then jumps forward to 1953, where the duo have just arrived in Newcastle for the first leg of a comeback UK tour, a series of engagements that Stan hopes will be leverage for them to make the Robin Hood script on which he has been working. What begins as a series of humiliating nights in tiny venues, under-populated by small audiences, leads to growing momentum and – as a result of a heavy schedule of promotional appearances – bigger, sold-out venues. With, all the while, Stan doing his utmost to get their film financed.
Far from watching legends going through pale echoes of better days, Stan & Ollie is the most beautiful of celebrations of not only one of the greatest double-acts of all time, but of a truly wonderful, platonic love story between two men who could not function without each other. It is a tribute to two people who, to the very end, wanted nothing more than to make the World smile. Key to the success of this film, and the heart-warming feelings it engenders is that although we do see evidence of ageing and physical decline, their talent remains fully intact. The duo are always ‘on’: even checking into a small guest house leads to an impromptu comedy routine, performed to make the receptionist happy. What is so beautiful here, though, is that this could have played as desperation for laughs and acclaim; but it never does. These are two men that know each other so well, that improvising something has become an effortless way to spread happiness to those they meet. Some of the very funniest parts of the film are in Stan and Ollie going about the everyday: their attempts to get a large storage trunk up a staircase at a railway station being an early example.
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We see a good deal of the pair on stage, also. It was interesting to learn that the routines performed here were created specifically for this film: they are not recreations of actual Laurel and Hardy routines. This appears to have been a masterstroke; as it allows Coogan and Reilly to take the essence of the partnership, without having to copy anything beat-for-beat. They sell us that we are watching Laurel and Hardy. The two actors also have wonderful chemistry: they just look right together. When Stan is encouraged, at one point in the film, to partner up with someone else, it doesn’t feel right to him, but, just as importantly, it doesn’t look or feel right to us. It is like watching someone cheat on their wife, and it nauseates – as we can be sure the filmmakers intended.
Supporting players are equally terrific. Rufus Jones, as tour producer Bernard Delfont, is wonderfully oily, yet likeable, yet inspired, yet actually not that good at his job. It is a joy to watch Stan and Oliver deal with Delfont as he tries to lobby them with silly ideas, or blame poor early ticket sales on some unspecified others. Both leads also enjoy wonderful chemistry with their on-screen wives: the aforementioned Henderson selling a deep affection for her waning, big bear of a husband; Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel portraying a very different, spikier character, but one, we learn, who has the best interests of her husband at heart. The wives join the film about halfway through and add so much, both through their own comedic relationship with each other; but also in giving succour to two men who have no idea what their future holds, but, left to their own devices tend towards less healthy pursuits.
Cinematography is truly gorgeous. The film is bathed in a golden glow, which adds instant nostalgia, before a word has been spoken. Credit must be given, also, to make-up and costuming departments. Reilly is in both a fat-suit, and heavy layers of prosthetics, particularly as an older man in the 1950s. Yet the effect is convincing, and appears to have been unencumbering: it never feels as though he is having to act through layers of make-up, and the additions to his bulk and skin look natural. Coogan’s ageing make-up to take us from 1937 to the mid-50s is extremely subtle and, again, never looks anything less than authentic. Both men are also wearing coloured contact lenses. As planned, this brings both actors closer to the appearances of the men they are portraying, but for Reilly the deep brown colour also adds such warmth to his Oliver Hardy: warmth that follows the character everywhere, as we can see how happy almost everyone is to see him.
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That warmth pervades the film as a whole. Stan & Ollie is not about the destination: it is about the journey. We learn that after Ollie’s death, Stan Laurel spent the rest of his life continuing to write sketches for the pair. How can a film ever hope to portray a love that profound? This film has managed it, by never making it the focus. Love is made of a million little moments, and this film demonstrates this in every frame. The fact that they are at the end of their careers adds poignancy, as the expression of that love is through performing – something they may not be able to do for much longer. That they can still perform as though at their peak is the correct decision for their portrayal. The ageing bodies are betraying a talent that still lies within them.
Although for awards purposes (and in line with US Release) Stan & Ollie is a 2018 film, the UK release puts this into the current year. If it is not on the list of the top-10 films of this year, then 2019 will have been very special indeed.