Let me try and explain what this one means to me.
I am a big geek. For most of my life this has centred around Star Wars, then in my twenties it extended to Buffy and the wider works of Joss Whedon and in the last decade I have also become quite obsessive with The Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve also dabbled heavily in sci-fi fan faves Doctor Who and Star Trek.
Yet I have only ever been to one fan convention and I have only ever joined one fan club and neither of these were linked to any of the above. Nope, in my younger years it was The Sons of the Desert, the official Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society, that I was a member of and my love of these two gentlemen, both gone from the planet fifty four years ago, remains as strong now as it ever was. In fact Stan Laurel is my one true hero, the single person living or dead I would most like to meet, my idol.
It’s fair to say then that I’ve been looking forward to this little film.
Of course my situation also presents some dangers. Sometimes films like this aim to shake the pedestal so that the idols fall. I’m still getting over watching Goodbye Christopher Robin and finding out that A.A. Milne was a bit of a dick for example. Thankfully this isn’t that kind of movie, rather it is an affectionate love letter to a sublime comedy duo the world is sadly beginning to forget. (My kids obviously know who they are but most people’s don’t.)
Clearly I’m thrilled that this film is not a brutal expose of unknown cruelties these men committed but this does rob it of some drama. Stan & Ollie is not a thrilling emotional rollercoaster and I have no idea how deeply it will engage the uninitiated. If you don’t already care about these guys then I’m not sure how much you would start to by watching it. This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t showcase their brilliance but I have to admit that their brand of humour has dated more than the biting wit of something like The Marx Brothers and it doesn’t involve the same astonishing stunt work of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd.
There are different reasons to love Laurel and Hardy though and it isn’t just the wonderful and sometimes surreal physical comedy and their incredible charm. One of the best aspects of all of their work together is the beautiful sense of companionship that lies beneath everything they do. Yes, the screen versions of their personas fight and they get exasperated with each other but they are always together and you know they’d never be separated. What this new film does so well is play on this and theorise how it was part of their real lives too. They do fight and they do get exasperated with each other (the story is not totally devoid of conflict) but they need each other and this is a nice mess that they are both clearly deeply happy to have gotten into.
Some of the drama also comes from the duos’ situation. This is not the story of their heyday, instead focusing on the tour of U.K. theatres they took at the end of their careers in the 50s. They struggle with a dwindling reputation and ill health as well as regrets with decisions they made as younger men. The story doesn’t steer right away from showing the mechanics of early cinema, there is a delightful early tracking shot as the two of them walk though a studio from their dressing room to the set, but if you want more of this best stick with Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (which features a different actor as Stan Laurel).
Here Laurel is played by Steve Coogan and he does a really good job. Coogan’s gift for mimicry allows him to get Laurel’s intonation perfectly and he also does beautifully with some small and subtle moments of emotion. If you never quite forget you are watching a portrayal here though the same is less true of John C. Reilly whose Oliver Hardy is spot on. This doesn’t mean that the film is Reilly’s though; he inhabits Hardy perfectly as a man but less so as a comedian whereas Coogan manages to convince as a gifted comic and the real man behind him. It could just be that we are less familiar with the real Laurel as his professional image was a transformative act that rarely fell away when any camera was on him.
The poster describes Stan & Ollie as ‘the untold story of the world’s greatest comedy act’. You’ll get no argument from me on the second part of that but if it is a previously untold story that might be because it’s not entirely true. There are other accounts of Stan being a workaholic leader and Ollie being easily lead so I have no criticism of this being shown on screen but the facts of their working life is presented with some artistic licence. The story suggests that some flawed contract negotiations finished their film careers when the Hal Roach Studios let them go. In reality eight of their twenty seven feature films were made after this point. Interestingly only a real fan would worry about this but I’m not worried about it. In the end Stan & Ollie tells a sweetly touching story of two men that have already sweetly touched my life and I think it is exquisite.
The Ripley Factor:
Wonderfully for a movie about two famous men, Stan & Ollie heavily features two formidable women. Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are excellent as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel and while they may be playing the wife roles they show that there is strength and independence in this. As much as Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy were incomplete without each other, so too are their characterisations only fully realised when they are seen with their spouses. Both Henderson and Arianda excel in different ways and they are essential to the story.
Is this one for the kids?
Yes, but only if you are going to show them a load of Laurel and Hardy movies first and as far as I am concerned you really really should do that. I guess I made my opinion on that clear from the start though.