One of the things that defined the success of silent cinema titans Laurel and Hardy was their universal appeal. Masters of their art, they transcended language, culture and age boundaries with their slapstick genius. Whilst Stan and Ollie might fail to live up to that ludicrously high comic bar, it delivers its own kind of universal appeal: pathos. Bring your most endurable hanky and perfect ‘I’m not crying I’m coughing’ routine, because this effortlessly sweet British gem will have you in floods of tears, rather than stitches of laughter.
‘a warm hug of a movie’
Stan and Ollie charts the twilight years of it’s titular double act, meandering through a painful visage of an attempted career revival. After the opening scene sees them at the height of their game (an introduction which masterfully outlines everything you need to know about our two central characters) the film cuts to some 16 years later, when the duo has set off on a UK tour in order to attract the eye of a Hollywood producer. Yet despite constant reassurances from their fans that “it’s so good to see you two still going after all these years,” time has brought its fair share of troubles for the pair. As the film progresses, melancholic details from this time jump are teased out: issues of health, personal betrayals and financial issues (a conversation at a bar neatly exposes this, as Stan complains that people are more interested in watching Laurel and Hardy re-runs which they don’t receive royalties for, instead of watching their theatre show). It’s a cleverly conceived screenplay about a little-known period in the pair’s lives – which acts as a meditation on the power of friendship and the fickle nature of fame.
But just as the characters discover that they are nothing without each other, so too would this film be nothing without its brilliant performances. Steve Coogan and John C Rilley shine as Laurel and Hardy. These aren’t glib impressions (although anyone who has seen The Trip will know Mr. Coogan can do a fair few of those) but reincarnations. The prosthetics aren’t consistently convincing – Coogan at times is more Barry Chuckle than Stan Laurel – but this doesn’t hinder performances which are eerily precise. And that goes for Shirley Henderson and Nina Ariana too, who play the wives of the main players. They make an excellent comedic pairing in their own right – something which the film acknowledges as their theatrical promoter states that they are “two double acts for the price of one.” If you’re tired of the trope ‘behind every great man is a great woman’, which reduces women to a crutch for male greatness, then Stan and Ollie gets its gender politics right as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel often outshine the film’s main stars – both in the comedy and tragedy department.
‘a cleverly conceived screenplay on the power of friendship and the fickle nature of fame’
Through this elegantly played tetrarchy of characters we get some beautiful and poignant moments of mirroring – one of the film’s smartest and best played weapons in its arsenal. The comedic brilliance of the husbands matches that of the wives, but so does the love between Laurel and Hardy and between their retrospective partners. If you’ve ever had a friend you’ve loved enough to equate to a sibling (and have ever experienced betrayal or forgiveness from them) you’ll be in floods of tears as I was. Mirroring is also used to blur the lines between fact and fiction, between art and reality. A comparison can be made between the bedside routine from their theatrical production and a gut-wrenching moment of bittersweet brainstorming, as Stan tries to entertain a bed-stricken Laurel, post heart attack.
Some of these reflective moments don’t always work, especially when Coogan and Riley try to reinvent slapstick sketches from the duo’s offscreen life. As the two book into a hotel they argue over who is to ring the bell, or when they drop a suitcase down a flight of stairs at a railway station, there was stony silence in the screening I was in. Those attempts to homage Laurel and Hardy were bound to pale in comparison. It is in the stew of quiet ennui that Stan and Ollie reaps its greatest rewards.
But that ultimately doesn’t get in the way of what is a warm hug of a movie. It’s as nostalgic and as wholesome as the Paddington films, and manages to pull an emotional punch along the way. It glows with a radiant fondness for its characters, and made me forget about all my troubles – which in today’s world of doom and gloom was just the ticket. Stan and Ollie ends by setting its sights for a brighter future for its stars – a future filled with hope – which seemed to me the perfect message for our ever uncertain times.