Stan & Ollie (2018)

Starring: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones

Directed by: Jon S Baird

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Who here has been to the Laurel & Hardy Museum? Run mainly by volunteers, this loving tribute to the famous double act is one of the most interesting and definitely the most warm-hearted museum I've ever visited.

Stan & Ollie shows a similar warmth and abiding affection for the unforgettable comedy pair.

John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie

The film begins during their heyday in the 1930s, when Laurel and Hardy pictures are playing in packed cinemas around the world. Yet the stars, bound by studio contracts, are still struggling for money. Fastforward 16 years to 1953, we find the boys about to embark on a tour of the UK. A tour, they quickly discover, of small, shabby theatres, playing to sparse crowds of locals who seem surprised they're not dead. But there's life in the old dogs yet, and such is their enduring appeal that their show proves irresistable. A few shameless marketing stunts later and the tour is set for success – providing Hardy's health can hold out...

Steve Coogan and John C Reilly were born to play Laurel and Hardy. They are simply brilliant, not merely impersonating the tragi-comic pair but inhabiting their baggy coats and bowler hats like wrinkled second skins.

Constantly recognised wherever they go, Stan and Ollie are never off stage – and yet they don't seem to want to be either, switching into character and playing up to their bickering, bungling images whenever an audience is in view, be that a nonplussed desk clerk or a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls. Even in private they continue to feed each other lines, as if the boundaries between their money-troubled, ambitious, often reflective and sometimes maudlin off-screen selves and their deft, comic, larger-than-life stage personas have become hopelessly blurred.

Cleverly, the setting of the film echoes this, each period-perfect backdrop – from the brilliantly named Bottle & Glass hotel, which stands alone like a two-dimensional stage flat in the shadows of a painted Tyne bridge, to Hardy's stately bedroom at the Savoy, which echoes the set up of their famous hospital sketch – are imbued with the elegantly designed impermanence of a stage set.

Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda and Mrs Hardy and Mrs Laurel in Stan & Ollie

Yet Stan and Ollie are not the only double act in the film: Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda also shine as the third and second Mrs Hardy and Mrs Laurel. Bound together as inextricably as their husbands in an affectionate yet frustratingly enforced friendship, they are often as unintentionally funny as their counterparts are deliberate.

Gentle, charming, witty, wry, funny and very moving, I absolutely loved Stan & Ollie. From start to finish it's a sheer delighta closely observed, perceptive examination of friendship and of how we choose to spend and end our lives. Another nice mess? Far from it.

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