This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 21/10/2018.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s brand of amicable slapstick remains in high esteem for its purity – without agenda, the duo distilled comedy down to its simple, singular objective of making people laugh; delight for its own sake. Existing almost outside of historical context, their humour doesn’t date or go sour.
Jon S. Baird follows through on this with a biopic that largely makes a solid run of safe plays. A curious choice – his last directing credit was Filth – Baird does away with his Irvine Welsh adaptation’s grimy inventiveness in favour of a pedestrian aesthetic well-suited to the sort of warm family fare often shown on BBC One just after Boxing Day dinner.
But a delicately-crafted screenplay from Philomena scribe Jeff Pope does serve well to colour in Laurel and Hardy’s larger-than-life personas with facets of humanity without invalidating their wholesome, Vaudeville image. Additionally, inventive flourishes of keen wit and poignancy mean Stan & Ollie doesn’t fail to delight, either.
Depicting the double act long after their Hollywood heyday, on the 1953 UK tour that would be their swan song, Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy are winningly cast, inhabiting their heroes with a tender touch that avoids straight impersonation.
The world around them is also neatly realised with some bang-on costuming and production design, while Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson unite admirably to flesh out the pair’s respective wives Ida and Lucille, overcoming their restricted roles with dry humour and grace.
Unafraid of portraying honestly the tender affection and emotional openness of two lifelong friends, while elegantly capturing their innate comic timing, Coogan and Reilly – along with their co-stars – turn in lovely, engaging performances that sustain interest in a film that is happy to mostly draw blow-for-blow from the biopic playbook.
CAST: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
DIRECTOR: Jon S. Baird
WRITER: Jeff Pope
SYNOPSIS: Laurel and Hardy, the world’s most famous comedy duo, attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song – a gruelling theatre tour of post-war Britain.