Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Laurel and Hardy were a big part of my life and many other people’s lives growing up as children and teenagers. Their films were always screened on TV during the school holidays. I have always been a far bigger fan of Laurel and Hardy than of any of the other golden age Hollywood comedians, their comedy is universal and genuinely timeless. Whereas with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton I can admire the incredible skill they had but they never make me laugh like Laurel and Hardy still do. Hence I was extremely sceptical when I first heard about this film, because really who could play Stan and Ollie better than Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. I am really pleased to say my scepticism was totally misplaced.
“Stan & Ollie” is a beautiful, heartfelt, loving, and poignant tribute to one of the most beloved comedy duos in cinema history. Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy portray them to absolute perfection in quite possibly career best performances. They capture not only their on screen partnership but more importantly who they were and their friendship off screen, not falling into the trap of just impersonating them but making them fully rounded out human beings. They are brilliantly supported by a cast of among others Shirley Henderson and Danny Huston.
The film begins in 1937 at the height of their career, but rather than take the approach of covering their entire lives the film focuses on the latter days of their career. Specifically their tour of the UK in 1953, and in so doing beautifully depicts their relationship with each other and their wives, being a love story not only between them and their wives but also between two friends who were like brothers to one another. There are surprises for some who only know their screen personas and not the human beings behind the iconic image, or the dynamic of their working relationship, which was the complete opposite to their film and stage personas. The film shows the meticulous work they both put into honing their seemingly effortless performances and the genius of Stan Laurel’s creative comedic mind and brilliant skill as a writer.
The film opens with a spine tingling continuous tracking shot sequence where we are introduced to them preparing to go onto the set of a film, a master-class in how to perfectly use stylistic elements to add substance, and in only a few moments of screen time. This scene perfectly introduces them, showing who they were, their relationship to each other, and their differing attitudes to Hollywood and the studio they were signed to, and that Stan Laurel was the businessman and creative force. There are even more similar moments throughout the film, especially the recreations of some of their routines, with one particular scene of wish fulfilment for not just Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy but also of their legions of fans who know of the film they never got to make.
Not being a Hollywood production but an independent British made BBC co-production it is quite low key, making the film work far better on a human level. Although it is a PG rated film suitable for all the family there is no shying away from showing that they both had their faults. Oliver Hardy liked gambling and living the “good life” whereas Stan Laurel was the one who was almost obsessed with creating. The depiction of their final marriages is realistic, but with a tender and sweet aspect, both wives being very protective of their husbands.
“Stan & Ollie” is a film made by film-makers who so obviously have a huge love and passion for Laurel and Hardy. A film that by the end leaves you with a warm glow, but is never saccharin sweet, having a subtle melancholic undertone throughout. From the opening credits to the closing credits the film does absolute justice to the memory of Laurel and Hardy.
Every fan, or those that wanting an introduction to two of the greatest comedians in cinema history, should see this film. It will no doubt make many lists of the best films of 2019.