It is an unfortunate reality that a large portion of any potential audience for this film will have no idea who the titular characters are, or any appreciation of their legacy as comedy performers. Of course, you can watch the film and enjoy it without any prior knowledge of the real-life characters whose final years as a comedy duo the film explores, but being aware of just how popular these two men were at the peak of their career certainly adds weight to the emotional resonance of the events. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were Hollywood stars who made more than 100 movies together in a career spanning 30+ years, however the film focusses on their 1953 tour of England and Ireland performing a series of live stage shows in what would ultimately serve as their final appearances together. Starring Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy, Stan and Ollie is an affectionate portrait of a remarkable friendship and professional partnership.
The film opens in 1939 with Stan attempting to convince his partner to insist upon more money in a contract renewal with their producer/boss Hal Roach, who is portrayed as a particularly unpleasant man by Danny Houston. However, with considerable debts thanks to his affinity for playing the ponies, Oliver cannot afford to prolong negotiations and submits to Roach’s demands, which results in him agreeing to make a film (titled Zenobia, but referenced here as the elephant movie) without his comedy partner. It was a split that is, thankfully, short-lived and the duo reunite soon after. Fast-forward to 1953 as the duo embark on a British tour under the illusion that they can convince a studio executive to bankroll a Robin Hood-based film that could revive their careers. Having spent their entire career as salaried employees with no access to any residuals for their myriad film projects, the tour is an attempt at some kind of financial security. Despite the fact that they haven’t seen each other for a few years, the two men quickly fall back into their routines, both as friends and performers. Saddled with a promoter (Rufus Jones) who has booked them into small rundown venues, tensions mount between the pair, which only serves to exacerbate Ollie’s health problems.
The tension between the pair increases with the arrival of their wives to join them for the final shows of the tour. Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) is straight-talking Russian who believes her husband’s career is being hamstrung by his loyalty to his friend, while Lucy Hardy’s (Shirley Henderson) sarcastic repartee is tempered by the concern she has for her husband’s wellbeing. In fact, the back and forth between the two women is every bit as amusing as slapstick routines for which their husbands became renowned. The boys work tirelessly to promote their shows and, whilst these efforts are rewarded with bigger venues and packed houses, Ollie’s health deteriorates to the point where he is advised to stop performing. Given their output and the popularity they achieved at the height of their fame and, despite the fact that Oliver lost over 100 pounds in the years following the events of the film, he was ultimately forced to sell his home to cover his medical costs before succumbing to a stroke in 1957.
Possessing an uncanny resemblance, Coogan is perfectly cast as Laurel and, while Reilly might seem an odd choice to play Hardy, his performance is a heartfelt tribute that extends beyond his physical transformation (four hours of make-up). Reilly beautifully articulates Stan’s struggle between his loyalty to his friend, his need for the money that the tour will bring and his battle with his health. Both performances extend beyond mere mimicry to deliver a tribute to two gifted comedians whose enduring friendship transcended anything they achieved on stage or screen. Arianda (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Henderson (On the Road, Okja) are also terrific as the two wives who are a veritable double-act in their own right and director Jon Baird (Filth) has wisely contained the story to the final stages of their career, rather than trying to tell the entire story of two men who remained committed to their work and each other until the very end.