DIR: Jon S. Baird • WRI: Jeff Pope • PRO: Faye Ward • DOP: Laurie Rose • ED: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Billy Sneddon • DES: Fiona Crombie • MUSIC: Rolfe Kent • CAST: John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda
When I was a young pup we had the good fortune to have television programming that provided us with film content all the way back to the Hollywood golden age. Weekends did not pass without a classic comedy in some form or other; the best form was Laurel and Hardy (Yeah, I know, there’s this thing called the internet). Their antics were never passed over in our house thanks to my father’s good taste. Even when my younger self did not get the full impact of their comedy, his laughter told me there was something I was missing. I got with the programme and, as my funny bone developed, Laurel & Hardy were there to help it along. Suffice to say, I am an avid fan of the greatest comedy team to ever grace this planet. Armed with that bias, I was very mixed on how I would take to Stan & Ollie, a film focussing on their later music hall years.
Opening with the boys at the height of their fame, the most cinematic shot of the film takes us from their dressing room through the back lots of the Hal Roach studios to the set of Way Out West as they prepare to shoot their famous rendition of ‘The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia‘. We learn of their humour, their frivolity, their ongoing contractual battle with Hal Roach and their haplessness as businessmen, all in this consummate tracking shot. A jump cut worthy of ‘Pardon Us takes us to Lancashire years later, where we meet the boys on the first leg of a music hall tour.
The heart of the story concerns itself with Stan and Ollie’s relationship with each other; the overworked comic, writer, genius director Stanley and the jobber, genius performer Ollie. Very different men, who have a genuine regard for each other, despite those differences. To quote Oliver, who quotes himself (from Sons in the Desert), they are like two peas in a pod. What drama that follows concerns itself with Laurel’s hopes of revitalising their film career, the pressures of a feckless English producer, Oliver’s ailing health and the emergence of Stanley’s old grudges.
As with many biographical films this is a highly fictionalized account. Compressing several tours into one and presenting it as a starting-over struggle that does not genuinely reflect the reality of their time touring this side of the pond. Despite such dramatic license, it is hard to fault such a sincere love letter to the two great comedians. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly wear their roles like gloves. Reilly in particular gives a tour de force performance as Hardy; the potential distraction of the amazing prosthetic work is never an issue for the actor, performing the role as if the ghost of Hardy himself possessed him. They are more than ably supported by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Mrs Hardy and Mrs Laurel, who provide their own scene-stealing double act.
There is much to enjoy here for anyone with a love for Laurel and Hardy. Those in the know will spot many little moments throughout that philistines will be hard put to truly understand. But I do wonder what those who have less of an idea of those great men might make of the whole thing. Despite the great performances, Coogan and Reilly can only allude to the lightning in the bottle that was Laurel and Hardy. If you don’t know it going in, you ain’t going to get it. For that, the philistines will have to go back and watch the originals. My advice for those true believers is to use this sweet little film as an excuse to educate a philistine or two. Which obviously will require a healthy dose of Laurel and Hardy movies as well as a visit to Stan & Ollie. As Stanley himself would say, “You can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be led”.