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D: Jon S. Baird / 97m

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

In 1937, Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (Reilly) are at the height of their fame: beloved the world over, they are in the midst of making their latest movie, Way Out West, when Stan’s determination to get them more money doesn’t go as well as he’d hoped. Sixteen years later, the duo are embarking on a British comedy tour, beginning in Newcastle. They’re playing small venues to small audiences under the guidance of impresario Bernard Delfont (Jones), and missing their wives, Ida (Arianda) and Lucille (Henderson). They’re also hoping to begin filming a new version of Robin Hood once the tour has finished, and Stan spends much of his spare time fine-tuning the script. As the tour progresses, the sales improve, and by the time they reach London, the tour is a critical and commercial success. But long held animosities begin to surface, and the pair have a falling out. With public appearances and further shows to be carried out, Stan and Ollie continue at loggerheads until Ollie is taken ill, and the rest of the tour is threatened. Stan is persuaded to carry on with an English comedian in place of Ollie, but Laurel and Cook just isn’t the same…

An entertaining, affectionate, and beautifully played tribute to the comedy genius of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Stan & Ollie offers fans of the duo a chance to revel in some of the best loved comedy routines ever created, and to share in the limelight they enjoyed for around forty years. The movie acknowledges that they had their personal ups and downs – Stan antagonising Hal Roach (Huston) and getting fired after Way Out West (effectively ending their success at the box office), Ollie going off and doing “the elephant picture” (1939’s Zenobia) – and it isn’t afraid to highlight just how often their professionalism kept them going during these periods. But through all the disagreements and the disappointments that followed in the wake of their severed ties from Roach, what shines through is the enduring, unassailable nature of their partnership. Jeff Pope’s nostalgic and emotionally redolent screenplay shows just how strong a bond the pair had, and through the exceptional performances of Coogan and Reilly, we see that bond expressed through shared moments of happiness and contentment where, whatever else is going on around them, they’re able to find solace and strength in each other.

So this is as much a love story as it is a fictionalised record of a British tour that didn’t include plans to make a Robin Hood movie (that occurred during their European tour of 1947), and which conflates several other incidents from the time. But for once, historical fidelity isn’t the issue, instead it’s about being true to the legacy of Laurel & Hardy, and the joy they brought to millions. As portrayed by Coogan, Stan is the restless creator, always thinking up new ideas, new jokes, or tinkering with old ones to make them better. Laurel’s facial expressions have kept impressionists in work for decades, and Coogan does an excellent job of recreating them, but there’s also heart and passion in his performance, and he perfectly captures the quiet melancholy beneath all the laughs. Reilly is also excellent as Ollie, consumed by a fat suit, but more than capable of relaying Hardy’s own doubts and concerns, while retaining his sense of joy and his surprising physicality. Though the illusion is dispelled in close ups, when viewed at a distance and when they’re replicating the pair’s routines, it’s almost as if a veil has been lifted, and for a moment, you can believe you’re seeing the real thing. Now that would have been truly wonderful…

Rating: 9/10 – a moving, delightful, and above all, joyous celebration of Laurel & Hardy’s unique personal and professional relationships, Stan & Ollie could be accused of lacking depth, but as a snapshot of a surprisingly successful period in the duo’s lives it’s winning stuff, and packed with charm; with a number of classic L&H routines on display, and terrific supporting performances from Arianda and Henderson (sometimes they’re funnier than Stan and Ollie themselves), this is Baird’s best movie to date, and for fans, an absolute delight.