The silent comedies are an area of film that I wish I was more familiar with. I’ve seen some works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but nowhere near enough. That’s also true of Laurel and Hardy. I’ve seen a few of their works but not enough to really call myself a proper fan of theirs. Given that a lot of people may see this as their introduction to the two, Stan and Ollie needed to work to people who were not familiar with Laurel and Hardy alongside people who know the Laurel and Hardy films inside out. The film almost succeeds in this, mainly due to the cast.
The film takes place in 1953 and focuses on the last tour Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy took around the British music halls. However, the audiences and theatres are much smaller than they expected, they are only doing the tour in order to build up financing for a Robin Hood film they want to make and there are tensions between the two that have built up over the years. Now the film works best when it focuses on the relationship between Laurel and Hardy, both the love and the tensions that the two share together. By focusing on this stage of their careers, we see the change in comedy styles, with people wanting acts like Abbott and Costello and Norman Wisdom over Laurel and Hardy at first, but it also shows the power that Laurel and Hardy still have. When they play to audiences, they always get laughs, even with the smallest audiences and it also shows how their work still holds up. There were a number of points during the film where I was laughing. It also adds to this bittersweet quality throughout the film as we see the joy Laurel and Hardy are bringing to people, but we know this’ll be the last time they perform, due to age, the changes in comedy and illness. The issue I had with the film though is that we don’t really get a sense of Laurel and Hardy at their height. There are a few scenes in 1937 but aside from this, we don’t see how big Laurel and Hardy were, which means we don’t get a true sense of how dismal the first stages of their tour was. This also leads into an issue I had with the character development as the conflict between Laurel and Hardy comes through a decision Hardy made in 1937, but we don’t get enough time to understand how it lingered with Hardy and the way it initially impacted the two, allowing it to fester, and this makes a big moment in the second half not play as well since there isn’t enough context to it.
The true genius of the film though is in the casting. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are perfect as Laurel and Hardy. Through little details in their body language and facial expressions, they are able to capture the feel of Laurel and Hardy’s work. This is mainly seen in recreations of the dance scene from Way Out West and bits from County Hospital, which are beat for beat perfect. The way Coogan and Reilly interact with each other as well just gives the feeling that they have been working together for decades, which is the feeling that needed to be nailed for a film focusing on this stage of Laurel and Hardy’s careers. Individually the two are great with Coogan showing more of an uptight nature, along with a keen comic imagination always at work with his writing, whilst Reilly brings some tragic pathos to Hardy showing just how much damage to his health the tour is doing and how difficult it is for him to perform. There’s also solid work from Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel who are essentially another double act, with some great comedy coming from the two, whilst there is a nice little cameo from Danny Huston setting some context to the film as Hal Roach.
On a technical level, the film is impressive. The best work is obviously the make-up work done on Coogan and Reilly to make them look like Laurel and Hardy, especially the make-up work on Reilly. The make-up is designed in such a way as to make the two recognisable as Laurel and Hardy but also to give Coogan and Reilly full use of their faces and body language, and this really helps in the emotional moments, working so well in making you believe you are seeing Laurel and Hardy. The production design does a great job at replicating the feel of 1950s Britain, with the use of the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham being a perfect way to capture the feel of older theatres and allow for on-location filming. The direction by Jon S Baird and cinematography by the underrated Laurie Rose is excellent, especially at the start with a great one take showing off Laurel and Hardy on set, creating the right atmosphere to show Laurel and Hardy at their height.
Overall, Stan and Ollie is a solid film with excellent performances from Steve Coogan and John C Reilly that make you feel like you are watching Laurel and Hardy, I only wish that the story and script gave a better insight into who Laurel and Hardy were and the way that their final tour played as part of their whole story. As a whole, it just feels like there’s something missing that keeps it from being a truly great film.
My Rating: 3.5/5