Like the comedy greats to whom this winningly warm film pays tribute, Jon S Baird’s affectionate drama balances humour and pathos, laughter and tears. Set in Laurel and Hardy’s twilight years, it’s more melancholy love story than slapstick showbiz reminiscence. Philomena co-writer Jeff Pope’s inventive script (inspired by AJ Marriot’s factual account of Stan and Ollie’s post-war British theatre tours) paints the performers as an odd couple, professionally joined at the hip yet sometimes separated at the heart. Superb headline performances from Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are matched by equally sparkling supporting turns from Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson as Stan and Ollie’s combative wives, providing what an astute promoter dubs “two double acts for the price of one!”
We first meet Laurel and Hardy in 1937, at the top of their Hollywood game. They’re popular, but underpaid, at least compared to “Charlie, Buster and Harold” who “own their own pictures”, and their contracts are, crucially, out of sync. While filming an unforgettable dance routine from Way Out West, Stan threatens to leave his co-producer Hal Roach, insisting: “You can’t have Hardy without Laurel.” When Roach (played on the brink of caricature by Danny Huston) calls his bluff, Stan heads to Fox, sure that Ollie will follow.
Sixteen years later, with finances failing, Laurel and Hardy arrive in Newcastle, Stan greyer, Ollie heavier (hats off to makeup and prosthetics designers Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier), both nursing old wounds. They’re supposedly touring to support a new movie project, a Robin Hood spoof Stan claims to have set up with a British producer. But while Norman Wisdom is winning hearts in theatres and Abbott and Costello are going to Mars in cinemas, Stan struggles to land a meeting with elusive money-man Mr Miffin. As for Ollie, whom everyone calls “Babe”, tired knees and a weakened heart make the tour a chore. “I thought you’d retired,” says a boarding house clerk and clearly she’s not the only one.
Despite half-empty houses and low-rent lodgings, the pair gradually find their feet, the “beautiful madness” of a dexterously executed double-door routine melting the heart of impresario Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones in smashing, charmy-smarmy form). But it’s the arrival of the wives that really shifts things up a gear. As the flinty Ida, Nina Arianda is a hoot, imperiously dismissive yet tenderly protective of her Stanley, keen to remind everyone that she too was an actor. “More of a dancer, really,” tuts Shirley Henderson’s quietly territorial Lucille, “with a very high pain threshold.”
Throughout, there’s an intriguing interplay between the performers’ real and fictional personae that lends emotional weight to the “stuff and nonsense” of their act. In theatres, a routine immortalised in the 1932 short County Hospital elicits belly laughs, but reality and performance are delightfully blurred when Stan trips over his cases checking into a guesthouse or the pair drop a trunk down a long flight of stairs at a railway station. More subtly, the familiar finger-twiddling gestures that Hardy used to hilarious effect on screen make a subtle appearance during wheedling negotiations with Roach. Later, a very public row between Stan and Ollie is heartbreakingly viewed as a comic skit by onlookers, one of whom asks pointedly: “Was that funny?”
The elephant in the room, of course, is Zenobia, the 1939 picture that Ollie made without Stan, a betrayal Stan has carried with him all these years, and which he now seems destined to repeat. While the film may open with its stars joking about their various divorces, both now have devoted wives yet both still doubt each other. When Stan scowls that “I loved us’, Ollie stingingly retorts: “But you never loved me.” It’s a dark truth that haunts many a double act.
Wisely, neither Baird nor Pope dwells upon such darkness. Instead, they focus on the alchemical interplay between Laurel and Hardy, perfectly embodied by Coogan and Reilly. While the pair’s vocal mannerisms are spot on (Ollie’s soft-consonant drawl in sharp contrast to Stan’s clipped staccato), it’s the physical patter that really flies, from the latter’s silent-movie eyebrows and elbows to the former’s oddly balletic clumsiness. Ace cinematographer Laurie Rose makes sharp use of reflected images and extended, fluid takes, particularly in the audacious opening sequence. The autumnal glow of his images hits just the right note – that sweet spot between joy and sadness (plaudits, too, to colourist Rob Pizzey). Amid the prevailing ugliness of the contemporary mood, what a lovely, generous tonic this delightful movie proves to be.
Mark Kermode Observer Jan 2019