What an unexpected joy this delightful ensemble piece is. An ensemble, how can it be an ensemble when it’s a ‘biopic’ of arguably the world’s funniest double act?
The reason is because the supporting cast, principally the wives (Shirley Henderson as Mrs Hardy and Nina Arianda as Mrs Laurel) along with showbiz impresario Bernard Delfont, played beautifully by Rufus Jones, all add such colour and magic to what is already two show-stopping performances that the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.
It’s curiously unfunny actually, indeed it’s the opposite. It’s a sentimental trip through the sad “where are they now years’ of Laurel and Hardy’s final variety theatre British tour in 1953, 16 years after their final movie in 1937.
The tour opens to empty houses (prompting notions of them being ‘has-beens’ and could have led to mawkish self pity but the writing team avoid that trap).
But the tour gradually builds momentum, through some pretty onerous publicity marketing stunts, and pretty much in the same way as the movie builds in its confidence.
I found the movie hard to get into initially – I think perhaps one is initially overly absorbed in Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly’s (Olly) impersonations. But once you’re over that, and have realised that their performances are actually magnificent, I relaxed and became immersed in the story.
And, you know, it’s terribly, terribly sad. Although the tour grows in its success their relationships and their health suffer considerably.
It turns out that Stan has been harbouring a grudge since the late 1930’s, when Olly made a film without him. Hal Roach having contractually split the pair. Did this mean they were just doing a job together? After all it was Hal Roach that teamed them up. they weren’t a ‘thing’ before that. Indeed Stan had even performed with the great Charlie Chaplin.
This leads to some momentous moments of real emotion that had me choking back the tears.
It’s beautifully shot, with a lovely period feel, despite its obviously low budget.
The direction, by Jon S. Baird, is out of the top drawer, again surprisingly so because his CV doesn’t suggest this is his kind of thing at all.
The interplay between the two wives is actually the funniest part of the movie. Henderson is kind and supportive to Oliver Hardy; Arianda is a Russian trophy wife, played for laughs, but contained. She also has a great affection for her husband, Stan. They are both brilliant and the movie wouldn’t be what it is without them.
All in all, an absolutely tremendous lesson in acting with Coogan putting in a career-best shift.
Very highly recommended. Take Kleenex.