Stan and Ollie

A shot of two very iconic bowler hats on a hatstand opens the film, kicking off a bravura tracking shot that introduces Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Hollywood at the height of their success. Natural performers, they play up to their head scratching and finger twiddling big screen personas as they interact with passers by on their way to the studio set where Way Out West is being shot in 1937 and where they are about to perform their celebrated At the Ball, That’s All dance.

Stan_&_Ollie_on_set

They’re two of the biggest stars in the world, and everyone loves them. It would be hard, if not impossible, for the pair to imagine that sixteen years down the line they would find it difficult to make ends meet and have to agree to embark on a variety theatre tour of Britain, hoping to revive their careers and maybe improve the chances of Stan’s proposed Robin Good screenplay being greenlit.

As they arrive for dates in Newcastle, this begins to look increasingly unlikely. Despite their legendary status, tickets sales are poor. The rise of television is one reason for the relative lack of interest and their supercilious British promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) concentrating his efforts on ‘blazing new young talent’ Norman Wisdom isn’t helping either.

Inspired by A. J. Marriot’s book Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours, Jeff Pope’s script concentrates on this late period in their careers, highlighting their on-going desire to make themselves and their audiences laugh, while also focussing on simmering resentments that can surface when the pressure mounts.

Stan_&_Ollie_hats

The film’s directed by Aberdonian Jon S. Baird, whose Filth I enjoyed – I also enjoyed the Q&A afterwards on the night of its Glasgow preview screening with Baird and Filth author Irvine Welsh making a pretty good double act themselves. That film featured an inspired piece of casting. James McAvoy was something of a left-field candidate for out of control cop Bruce Robertson, but he supplied a scorching performance that soon made it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

Here, the casting of the two leads is even more crucial – even today, Laurel and Hardy are immediately recognisible to a majority of the planet.

Baird has again chosen wisely. John C. Reilly must have been a fairly obvious choice for Ollie. An under-rated actor who has managed to appear in some of my favourite films of the last two decades or so – Boogie Nights and We Need to Talk about Kevin for starters – he naturally exudes likeability. He’s also a little chubby, though not obese like Ollie – that’s a fat suit he’s wearing here and very realistic it looks too.

Steve Coogan takes on the role of Stan Laurel. With his ears pegged back and artificially elongated jaw, he also resembles his fellow Lancastrian enough to convince. Both actors also capture the pair’s physical mannerisms and verbal tics masterfully.

Stan & Ollie

Although there’s a ‘darling new young Queen’, this is a drab post-war Britain where rationing still exists and where pea-souper fogs are commonplace. When Stan and Laurie step onstage, though, there’s fun to be had. The tour zigzags across the country including a date at the infamous Glasgow Empire – the site of which I walked past on the way to see the film – where they perform Shine on Harvest Moon. The shows go down well and when the duo partake in some additional promotional work, ticket sales shoot up. By the time they reach London, a theatre with a bigger capacity is required.

This gives both men a real boost and they’re both also delighted when their wives arrive from the States to join them for the remainder of the tour.

Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel and Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Filth) as Lucille Hardy are often as funny as their famous husbands, constantly aiming bitter little barbs at each other. You could easily imagine a movie where they were the two central characters. ‘Two double acts for the price of one,’ Delfont quips during one of their verbal jousts.

Stan and Ollie and Wives

Just when it looks like Stan and Ollie’s luck is on the rise, Stan’s film deal falls through and Ollie suffers a heart attack while about to judge a bathing beauties competition in Worthing, an event that will prompt another not so nice mess. ‘You cannot go on stage again in your condition,’ he’s warned by a doctor.

Dates will have to be cancelled, and Stan faces a dilemma over Delfont’s plan to foist a new partner on him in the shape of Nobby Cook. Laurel & Cook? That would never work, would it?

This is an undemanding, slightly cosy though very entertaining watch, an affectionate tribute to comedy’s greatest ever duo.

I’m not sure it knew when to end and I didn’t buy into the scene where a film production company receptionist fails to recognise Laurel and then repeatedly calls him Mister Lauren but watching Coogan and Reilly recreate some classic routines is such a joy that I left the cinema happy and in the mood to rediscover some Laurel and Hardy classics.

How the film will perform at the box-office in an age of fantasy epics, superheroes and Star Wars sequels, I have no idea, although the promising news is that it has been nominated for seven British Independent Film Awards, including Steve Coogan for Best Lead Actor, while Reilly has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.

Stan_&_Ollie_onstage

Stan & Ollie premiered in October at the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in America on 28 December 2018 and in Britain on 11 January 2019.

For more on the film: https://stanandollie.co.uk/

 

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