I’m currently attending the BFI London Film Festival, so will be popping in with reviews of everything I get the chance to see. It’s the last hurrah of the festival with closing gala movie Stan and Ollie…
If the goal of programming Stan and Ollie as the final movie of the BFI London Film Festival 2018 was to bring the curtain down with a crowd-pleaser, they certainly succeeded. Filth director Jon S Baird‘s reverent, gentle tribute to comedy maestros Laurel and Hardy gets the tricky alchemy of a story like this one just right. It’s warm in all of the best ways, but never suffers from slipping into Sunday afternoon telly tedium.
The movie opens in 1937, with Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C Reilly) on the set of their classic film Way Out West. Their deal with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) is in flux and Hardy’s gambling is causing financial issues. Laurel urges him to “lay off the horses and don’t get married again”, before they step on set for a fun dance number. The movie then zips forward to the 1950s, with the duo embarking on a stage tour of the UK, organised by the ineffectual Delfont (Rufus Jones) in order to raise capital for a Robin Hood film.
Much of the joy of Stan and Ollie comes from watching Coogan and Reilly interact. They have terrific chemistry and do a decent enough job of channelling the spirits of the icons they are portraying. Coogan, in particular, is excellent as Stan, who is a bookish, worried bloke only capable of switching on the shtick as he’s about to step on stage – a transition Coogan communicates with ease. Hardy, meanwhile, is seemingly always on as his broad, jolly caricature and this gives Reilly room to inject real pathos into late scenes as his health problems catch up with his desire to perform.
The supporting cast is colourful and broadly comedic, with the prickly dynamic between Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) standing out as a real highlight. When Jones quips that this provides “two double acts for the price of one”, it’s a comment that relates to the audience too. Watching Henderson and Arianda is every bit as entertaining as the banter between their husbands.
Stan and Ollie casts the two men as fading stars in the twilight of their careers, capable of turning on the magic in order to make their comedy fly. It would have been easy, against this backdrop, for the movie to manufacture a tonne of conflict between the duo, but that’s largely a trap that Jeff Pope’s nimble screenplay manages to avoid. All of the friction and tension in the film feels organic and earned, serving as secondary to the vast affection between these two people, who have relied on each other for decades.
Anyone looking for a punchy, powerful take on comedy stars on the decline might find themselves wanting after Stan and Ollie, but that would fail to recognise what the movie is hoping to achieve. First and foremost, it’s a tribute to two giants of big screen rib-tickling, providing a showcase for two very strong performances in homage to a duo that shaped comedy for generations to come.
(Dir: Jon S Baird, 97 mins, UK Release: January 11, 2019)
Are you excited to see Stan and Ollie when it hits cinemas? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and make sure you take a look at my reviews of all of the best movies from the BFI London Film Festival 2018.