It’s somewhat surprising that a biopic in some shape on form on the legendary Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy hadn’t been forthcoming before Jon Baird’s film made it to cinemas. Such was their status and the indelible mark they left on cinema and culture in general back in their heydays, it seems remiss that someone hasn’t brought their story to life. But thanks to writer Jeff Pope, we now have that movie which has been getting some stellar reviews since its debut at last year’s London Film Festival. So does Stan & Ollie do justice to the duo’s legendary status?
In a “break from the norm” in the midst of so many biopics doing the rounds on the Awards Circuit at the moment – First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody and more have entered the mix over the past few months – Stan & Ollie isn’t so much a story of their collaborations and rise to stardom, it focuses on their struggles in their later years, dealing with a changing landscape across the world that has moved away from them and onto the booming movie stars of the day. Still, the UK and Ireland provided a platform for them to perform that will hopefully spin-off into seeing a long-standing film project getting financed.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, the filmmaker behind the brilliant James McAvoy film Filth, there’s much to enjoy here even if when all is said and done it doesn’t quite have the heft that one may have hoped for. The look and feel of the era is evident from the very first moments, as we trail the duo in 1937 through the backlot of a film stage as they walk from dressing room to the set of Way Out West, the camera following them as they chat about the future and their stardom. Indeed, the most fascinating aspects about their story is the struggles of their bond and the burdens that come with success, particularly in a partnership, with some success even if it never completely comes together, feeling a little too bare on the bones and slight than it perhaps ought to be.
What is successful are the two central performances from Coogan and Reilly who are both outstanding: inhabiting the roles with consummate ease and panache, the two are dynamite both together and apart, bringing real warmth and affection to the film. Reilly, in particular, deserves huge kudos for undertaking the physical demands of playing Hardy, buried underneath excessive prosthetics but bursting through them with a power that’s hard to ignore. Indeed, both Shirley Henderson and a scene-stealing Nina Arianda, are equally as good as their on-screen partners and only add to the depth of the film.
While it may not be quite the compelling biopic that some may have hoped, Stan & Ollie is still a film that acts as a small window into the lives of the two trailblazers that’s both funny and melancholic with a slew of superb performances, not least from John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan, whose awards recognition thus far is nothing if not deserved. Not sign of a fine mess to be found here, that’s for sure.
Biopic, Drama | UK, 2018 | 12A | 11th January 2019 (UK) | Entertainment One | Dir.Jon S.Baird | Steve Coogan, John C.Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones