Film review: Stan & Ollie an affectionate, heart-warming biopic of comedy greats

More than 65 years after their final, fateful live performances in Ireland and Britain, comedy greats Laurel and Hardy are brought to life in Stan & Ollie, which joyfully recreates some of the duo's greatest skits, writes Damon Smith

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in Stan & Ollie

DIRECTOR Jon S Baird calls lights, camera, action on a golden era of studio system Hollywood in his affectionate and heart-warming biopic of the English and American comedy duo, who shared the screen for almost 30 years.

Penned by Jeff Pope, Stan & Ollie is a handsomely crafted Valentine to a double-act who earned legions of adoring fans with pratfalls and slapstick.

The film focuses predominantly on their 1953 theatre tour of Britain and Ireland, which was dominated by Hardy's failing health.

A lean script replays some of the couple's greatest hits including the 1932 short film County Hospital, which finds Oliver in bed with a broken leg and Stan wreaking havoc with a jug of water, a bed pan and a bag of hard-boiled eggs.

These moments of nostalgic recreation are joyful and Baird revels in the connection between the two performers, convincingly played by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, concealed beneath layers of latex prosthetics.

The film opens in 1937 California. Laurel and Hardy are two of cinema's biggest names but they don't command the financial clout of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd because they don't own their pictures.

The duo resolve to demand a better deal from Hal Roach (Danny Huston), who has them under contract, and subsequent wrangling for a bigger slice of the Hollywood pie creates a fissure in the duo's relationship.

Fast-forwarding to 1953, Stan and Oliver tour England with a stage show of skits that promises to let them "go out with a bang... in Hull".

Theatre impresario and tour promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) is more interested in a "bright new talent" named Norman Wisdom than the duo, who have survived the ravages of time.

"I think it's wonderful you're still going," coos a London jewellery shop assistant.

"Rigour mortis hasn't set in... yet," smiles Stan plaintively.

Wives Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) and Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) offer moral support as the tour continues and Oliver's health suffers.

"You loved Laurel and Hardy but you never loved me," laments the American during one lively exchange.

As the title suggest, Stan & Ollie is anchored by Coogan and Reilly, who are fiercely committed, catalysing an old-fashioned bromance that endures after Oliver's death.

They are almost upstaged by a tour-de-force performance from Arianda as Stan's wife, a Russian glamour puss of few words – most of them biting – who stands defiantly by her man, especially for a photo opportunity.

"Where do you want me? I give them my good side," she trills excitedly.

Baird's film repeatedly tips a bowler hat to its subjects, who got into one fine mess after another so long as it made the world laugh.

STAN & OLLIE (PG, 98 mins) Drama/Comedy/Romance. Steve Coogan, John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston. Director: Jon S Baird

RATING: 7/10

Released: January 11 (UK & Ireland)

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