BFI London Film Festival: Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie
Stan & Ollie
Directed by Jon S. Baird
Starring Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson and Danny Huston
Screening at LFF October 21st 2018

by Richard Hamer

It’s 1953, and the world-famous comedy double act Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) have entered into the final phase of their careers. Now in their sixties, they embark on an ambitious theatre tour of the U.K. in an effort to reignite their fame, and secure funding for a new movie project. But the tour doesn’t go as expected: They’re booked into cheap guest houses, and play to half-empty music halls. The world of comedy has moved on, it seems; more interested in Norman Wisdom and Abbott & Costello than two old men in bowler hats who keep falling over.

To drum up interest, Stan and Ollie fill their already packed schedule with TV spots and celebrity appearances, putting a strain on their friendship, and the health of an unwell Hardy. Of course, any friendship that lasts this long is certain to have its share of old resentments, and as the tour begins to take its toll on the aging duo, things begin to bubble to the surface.

By focusing on the lives of two cinematic greats after the end of their career in cinema, Stan & Ollie feels unexpectedly intimate. At the centre of this are Coogan and Reilly, who are absolutely perfect as the titular duo. There is a simple delight in how perfectly they capture their every mannerism; Hardy’s despairing little pauses and playful shoves, or the precise way Laurel shrugs and smiles in helpless confusion. And while the accuracy of their off-screen personas is harder to judge, the division between the two is expertly portrayed. Not just in the shift in accent and attitude, but in the visible weight of age they carry with them day-to-day, instantly disappearing when the stage lights turn on.

Not that Coogan and Reilly get all the accolades: Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, as the duo’s wives Lucille and Ida, dominate their every scene. As two experienced showbiz partners, they’re mercilessly intolerant to bullshit, and the complex relationship they have with each other, and their husbands’ fame, is at turns affecting and hilarious. “Two double acts for the price of one!”, as Stan and Ollie’s gleefully oily booking agent observes.

It goes without saying that the better you know the real Laurel and Hardy, the more you’ll get out of this movie. But even for audiences unfamiliar with their work, there is still much to like. It’s a rare thing to see a story of life-long male friendship, especially one played so earnestly, so devoid of irony. You don’t have to have watched a second of silent cinema to understand the quiet sadness of knowing what you’ve done your whole life is coming to an end, and that the friend that’s always been there may not be there forever. Let’s call it what it is: Stan & Ollie is a love story, and a sweet, sad one at that.

In truth, the quality and care of its performances are undercut by its presentation. Outside of the ambitious six-minute tracking shot that opens the movie, Stan & Ollie is solid but unmemorable film-making, destined to fade from the memory faster than it deserves. Ditto the writing, which succeeds despite its somewhat rote story beats, pulled directly from the Big Book of Sad Bio-Pics.

But, this is a film to be enjoyed for its acting, in the pleasure of watching two great comedians relish the chance to become two other great comedians, disappearing into roles so precise and exact, yet re-emerging with a story that can resonate with everyone. Unlike the movies of its namesake, Stan & Ollie isn’t likely to stand the test of time, but while it’s here, it’s a pleasure.


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