Stan & Ollie (Jon S. Baird, 2018)
All comics end in tragedy, in one way or another. They either die in harness — Tommy Cooper on stage — or fade away to keep bees on the South Sussex Downs or can’t stay at the top. Those giants of silent film — Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin — transitioned awkwardly into the synchronised sound era, but production slowed or stopped. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were paired together by Hal Roach, with Laurel’s gift for dialogue pairing perfectly with their slapstick. But Laurel never had the financial control he craved and was unable to negotiate a better deal as his contract never ended at the same time as Hardy’s. Laurel left Hal Roach Studios and Hardy made a film with Harry Langdon; thirteen years later the two tour Britain and Ireland in 1953, rebuilding an audience as the has-beens, enjoyed more in reruns than live, and trying to out together one last film. But Hardy is dying.
It has to be said, the casting is brilliant. When confronted with the genuine footage from Way Out West in the closing credits, it’s almost as if Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly look more like the double act than Laurel and Hardy do. The conceit is, perhaps understandably, their off screen relationship is much like that onscreen, as if Laurel is scripting them. There are callbacks to County Hospital and The Music Box, among others, although this risks undercutting the genius of the original performances. We even see the characters in bed together, a conceit borrowed by Morecambe and Wise, another double act who reached the top and struggled to get bigger. Meanwhile, Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are spikily brilliant as their protective wives.
But, of course, it’s bad geography and bad history. I don’t think there ever was a railway bridge with that view of Tower Bridge and the Adelphi office building seems to have been moved. I was squinting at the pub they stay in under the Tyne Bridge — I suspect it’s all sloped roads at that point. And why, given Laurel lived in Tynemouth and Glasgow, is there no nostalgia or reaction at being back? The five years of 20th Century Fox films in the early 1940s are erased, as are the European tours that they started in 1947. And Laurel fell ill on the last tour.
There are times when the film sags a bit, but the comic timing is impeccable and the camera work interesting — Laurie Rose begins with a single continuous take and likes catching the stars in mirrors, reflecting Laurel and Hardy alongside Hardy and Laurel. And there is the sense of the next generation coming up on their heels — a poster for an Abbott and Costello film (although they’d been active for years and were past their best) and Bernard Delfont singing the praises of his client Norman Wisdom (although they’d met in London in 1947, Laurel and Wisdom performed together and Wisdom sought Laurel’s aid when he tried to crack Hollywood in about 1950).
So, surprise, we go to this film for the emotional truth we want, but try not to squint at the history.