STAN & OLLIE
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
John C. Reilly
Rating: 98 mins.
Australian release date: 21 February 2019
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 7 February 2019.
This sensitive portrayal of a personal and professional friendship is written by Jeff Pope, a British screenwriter who scripts primarily for television and is Head of Factual Drama for ITV, but Stan & Ollie never feels like a telemovie. Pope’s a great writer of sensitive emotional stories, having written the poignant script for another Steve Coogan-starrer, Philomena, one of the few screenplays he’s composed expressly for the cinema. Scottish director Jon S. Baird also comes mainly from a TV background but the two of them, plus an excellent cast, have contrived a slow-burning tale that builds to a highly satisfying and moving climax.
It’s 1937 and a long, fantastically choreographed follow-shot opens the film, as we walk with the comedy duo of Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver ‘Ollie’ Hardy (John C. Reilly) to the set of their latest movie, while they bicker and banter on the way to the sound-studio. They are separately contracted to Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and Stan’s contract is up for renewal, but he feels that the studio isn’t recognising their success and is refusing to sign. When he fails to convince Ollie to join with him and move to another studio, the two go their different ways. Cut to 16 years later and the pair is back together in Newcastle, England, past their prime but about to embark on a music hall tour of England and Ireland, under the auspices of producer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones). Delfont’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it though because he’s also repping Norman Wisdom, a rising star in the early ‘50s, and he’s concentrating more on him and doing little publicity for the fading Stan and Ollie. The result is half-empty houses until Delfont is convinced to use the comedians for pre-publicity and, gradually, as the tour heads for the capital, the halls begin to fill. Ultimately, the show is so successful that the London Lyceum is booked for a two-week run. Arriving at the Savoy Hotel, the boys are joined by their wives, Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda), a warring duo who prompt Delfont to quip that he’s got “two comedy acts for the price of one.” At the opening night party, the matter of the ‘split’ years earlier comes up and old wounds are reopened, resulting in harsh words between Stan and Ollie and the threat of yet another parting of the ways. When, in the following frosty days, Ollie has a small heart attack, it looks like it really will be curtains for the famous comedic partnership. As the saying goes, however, “You don’t miss your water until your well runs dry,” and the threat of a permanent schism forces the men to open their eyes to the truth of their relationship.
Laurel and Hardy were superstars in their day, and have continued to be highly influential on subsequent generations of comedians, and Coogan and Reilly have successfully embodied them in Stan & Ollie. To do so, they studied the pair’s on-stage routines and filmed performances at such depth that they could do them in their sleep. “What's great about watching [Laurel and Hardy] dance is that they are just sort of throwing it away and not appearing to try very hard. It requires a lot of work to make something look easy.” To their credit, Coogan and Reilly have managed to do the same - they make their acts look effortless. What wasn’t so easy was the transformation of Reilly into the heavily overweight Ollie. It required a fat suit, prosthetic jowls and chins and three hours in makeup to effect the conversion. Henderson and Arianda are simply terrific, too, as the sparring wives and Pope’s dialogue sparkles with wit whenever they are on screen together. Rufus Jones also has some wonderfully dry lines as the cunning Delfont.
As stated earlier, viewers need patience in the initial third of Stan & Ollie and it takes some time to get going but, once it does, it’s a thoroughly rewarding story of a business and artistic partnership that developed into a true friendship over the years. Separately, Laurel and Hardy were talented but, together, they formed a unit that was so strong that it could not work in the absence of the other. Jeff Pope says simply, “It’s a love story between two men.”