THE bowler hats are an exceedingly snug fit for Steve Coogan and John C Reilly in this touching drama about Laurel and Hardy’s 1952 theatrical tour of the UK and Ireland.
The Hollywood duo’s songs, dances and slapstick routines are so meticulously recreated that it feels like you’re watching the real Stan and Ollie.
But the film isn’t just out to tickle our funny bones. At its heart, this is a tear-jerking love story – albeit one about two straight men in their 60s.
It seems director Jon S Baird (Filth) and writer Jeff Pope (Philomena) are quite a double act too. A more obvious biopic would have focused on Laurel and Hardy’s glory years and found drama in the power struggles and scandals of Hollywood’s golden age.
Baird and Pope only give us the briefest of glimpses of the stars’ heyday in a smart opening sequence. It’s 1937 and Laurel and Hardy are the biggest comedy stars in the world. In a single take, Baird’s camera follows them from their dressing room to a sound stage.
By now their double act is 10 years old and as they tip their bowler hats and twiddle their ties to passing technicians and extras, it seems their schtick has become almost instinctive.
With great economy, Pope’s script then sketches in their private relationship. Ollie (Reilly), or “Babe” to his friends, has gambled his way through his pay packet and the determined Stan wants him to back him up in negotiating a more lucrative contract with producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston).
After the discussion with Roach descends into a furious row, Stan casually ushers Ollie in front of a Wild West backdrop and tells the director precisely where to place his camera. Then they break into the endearing jig from Way Out West, one of the most life-affirming sequences in the history of cinema.
This is last we see of comic actors Coogan and Reilly. From here on they completely disappear into their roles.
We then jump forward 15 years and see the aftermath of Stan’s hardline stance with the studio.
The pair are booking into a cheap hotel in Newcastle where they break into some slapstick business with the reception desk bell.
When they finally arrive at a downtrodden theatre, onlookers are shocked to see them in the flesh. People assumed that they had retired years ago and that the poster for their show was advertising a tribute act.
Their fortunes begin to change when promoter Bernard Delfont (a funny Rufus Jones) arranges a series of publicity stunts for the newsreels. The venues gradually get bigger and Stan and Ollie feel it’s time to invite their wives to the UK.
“At its heart, this is a tear-jerking love story – albeit one about two straight men in their 60s.”
Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson are another great double act as the squabbling Mrs Laurel and Hardy and provide welcome comic relief when their husbands’ relationship takes a more serious turn.
“You loved Laurel and Hardy, but you never loved me,” says Ollie to Stan as long-held resentments come to a head. They sound like an old married couple because they effectively are.
When they arrived in the UK, they were looking to resurrect their movie careers and entice a British producer to fund Stan’s new Robin Hood script. By the end, they are almost having a second honeymoon. As Ollie’s health fails and Stan’s film project hits the rocks, they fall in love again.
Baird ends his film where he began, with the real Laurel and Hardy dancing in Way Out West.
It’s as funny as it was 80 years ago but now they are dancing to a slightly different tune.
If you’re watching this wonderful tribute with the right audience, the singing cowboys will be accompanied by a chorus of gentle sobs.