Poignant, funny and heartwarming, Stan & Ollie lifts the bowler hat on the greatest double act in movie history: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Intricately designed as a love letter to their comedy genius, Jon S. Baird’s film is also that cinematic rarity, a moving portrait of two friends later in life. Rather than a slapstick comedy, it’s a subtle, sophisticated, gripping character study delivered by two awards-worthy performances, by Steve Coogan as Stan, and John C. Reilly as Ollie.
It might be about two Hollywood legends, but Stan & Ollie is British through and through. Written by Oscar nominee Jeff Pope (Philomena), and produced by Faye Ward (Suffragette), it uses the double act’s little-remembered 1950s tour of the UK’s music halls and variety theatres during the twilight of their career as a prism to examine their creative and personal partnership. The pair criss-cross the country (a splendidly realised version of ’50s Britain), playing to small crowds in Glasgow, staying in dingy guest-houses in Newcastle, biding their time before they make their own Robin Hood picture (Rob’em Good). But events from their past – told in sunny, economic flashbacks, in direct contrast to austere Blighty – come to play in the present and are set to derail the collaboration for good.
Nailing body language, mannerisms and that particular brand of Laurel and Hardy chemistry, Coogan and Reilly are a revelation, exploring real-life personalities that are the opposite of their on-screen characters. Coogan is stunning as Stan, childlike on screen, but the creative dynamo in real life, endlessly coming up with routines, and oblivious to the toll the tour is taking on Ollie. Reilly is equally terrific as the more laid-back Ollie, the seeming grown-up of the duo, who just wants an easy life – even as Stan drives the pair forward. Using state-of-the-art prosthetics, Coogan and Reilly don’t do impersonations; instead, they channel the pair’s spirit and charm to find the reality beneath the icons. The physical resemblance is remarkable — Coogan’s accent captures Stan’s mid-Atlantic twang; Reilly perfectly nails Ollie’s surprising agility — but they very quickly replace interest in an actor’s transformation with a fascination in complicated lives.
The story’s stakes are raised when Stan and Ollie are joined in London by their wives: Lucille (Shirley Henderson), and Ida (Nina Arianda). Riffing on the on-screen portrayal of Laurel & Hardy’s wives as nagging harridans, the pair form a hilarious double act of their own. As you’d expect, Henderson is superb as the warm, supportive Lucille, but Arianda is the break-out. Best known for Florence Foster Jenkins, she gives a scene-stealing performance as Ida, pushing Stan to be more assertive, while revelling in her own former showbiz glories — Arianda’s turn is a masterclass in comic-character building, without ever diluting the drama.
The story is told with impeccable craft and brio. Director Baird (Filth) stages an audacious six-minute tracking shot that follows Stan and Ollie from their dressing room, through a bustling studio and onto a soundstage, where they perform the famous dance from Way Out West. The film is littered with classic Laurel and Hardy routines — some on stage, some subtly sewn into the fabric of everyday life — but this isn’t just a tribute to a golden age of comedy. It’s a touching study of a friendship that develops and deepens as the tour goes on. You may come for the laughs but you’ll be moved to tears.