Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenplay: Jeff Pope
Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones
Runtime: 97 Minutes
What works best about Stan & Ollie, a biopic based on the later years of the lives of the comedy double act Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly), is explained pretty well by its title putting the first names of the famous duo front and centre above their traditional stage title. A film that puts its icons as living, breathing human beings first while still carrying with it the orthodox charm that made them so potently memorable.
The story depicts the attempt to reignite their film careers as they embark on what becomes their swan song - a gruelling theatre and music hall tour of post-war Britain. But it’s immediately apparent following a short introductory sequence set 16 years prior in their golden years that all is not well, and that time, industry and other more personal factors have led to the two drifting apart for some years.
The strength of screenwriter Jeff Pope’s screenplay and story structure allows a lot of the bad blood to be parsed out slowly before the inevitable end of act two blowout, in which their long-simmering resentments of one another spill out into a verbal spar at an afterparty.
But the cleverness of it is that beyond the ticking clock of Oliver’s declining health and Stan’s reluctance to hang-up to tour in the face of public obliteration, all inciting incidents to push the plot forward have already occurred before the story begins proper, and it’s all down to what the characters choose to do and say that allows the drama to catch fire.
There’s also director Jon S. Baird’s direction, that is as reserved and mannered as a BBC television drama (which for once doesn’t feel like a negative) in its intimacy and minute scale – there are probably only five major speaking roles in the whole thing. But it’s how he frames scenes to stress their situations as they play to initially sparse crowds and their old hat routines almost intentionally feel like they’re falling short, and he knows how long to hold onto frames and his sense of staging even outside of the theatre scenes is quite remarkably well-done.
That’s to say nothing of the performances which are uniformly brilliant. Coogan has always been spectacular at balancing serious dramatic chops and chokingly emotional delivery with on-point physical comedy, and Reilly feels insidiously well-cast even underneath the heaps of makeup used to conjure the transformation as a masterful version of his naturally sympathetic and earnest performance mannerisms. Their dedication to their comradery makes a majority of their scenes together talking and witling their time away outside of the performances where the real heart and magic lies, and makes the subtle subversions of that all the more painful to watch.
But the surprise is just how great Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are as long supporting wives (and last in a long line of) Lucille Hardy and Ida Kitaeva Laurel respectively. As Rufus Jones’s devilish theatrical impresario Bernard Delfont states, “two double acts for the price of one”, and that’s exactly what we get. They’re very funny together, and their performances and the material they are handed elevate what could otherwise be disposable roles into scene-stealers.
Stan & Ollie is a small-scale winner; a proper joy that moves lightly and fast, but hits hard at the emotional core between the two leading stars and the fading stars that they are portraying. It wears a lot of what it carries on its sleeve with little more to bring than what it shows, but what it delivers on is a delightfully adoring and well-judged film that might inspire more audiences to seek out the original films for themselves one day.