Incredible performances elevate this Laurel and Hardy biopic to the top of your must-see list for 2019.

Names like Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon and Mabel Normand have long been lost to cinema history. However, during the height of the silent era of film and the transition to talking pictures in the late ‘20s, these were comedic acts as popular as Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and of course, Laurel and Hardy. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the appetite for Laurel and Hardy’s sui generis brand of slapstick comedy has never waned, and its ability to transcend generation after generation is unique.

Jon S. Baird’s affecting biopic begins in 1937 with a revealing tracking shot that follows the comedy duo through a working studio to the set where the classic dance sequence in western spoof Way out West is about to be filmed.

The actors, despite being at the pinnacle of their careers, are still on a studio contract and Stan Laurel has a gripe with producer Hal Roach, the man credited with bringing the double act together a decade earlier: “Charlie, Buster and Lloyd own their own pictures, why can’t we?” Laurel tells Hardy. It signals the beginning of the end for Laurel’s involvement with Roach. Hardy, still contracted, makes another film (Zenobia, 1939) with a new partner – a contentious issue for Laurel and a bane he continues to carry as events move forward 16 years.

With financial opportunities becoming elusive, the pair embarks on a tour of Britain and Ireland in 1953, promoted by duplicitous impresario Bernard Delfont, brilliantly portrayed by Rufus Jones. Initial poor attendances and the stalling of a planned feature film for the duo force them to contemplate the uncomfortable truth that their once global popularity is, like Hardy’s good health, a thing of the past. But as the tour progresses, momentum builds, and buoyed by the arrival of their respective wives, who battle with each other incessantly, a little of the old magic returns to the stage.

The palpable chemistry between John C. Reilly (Hardy) and the underrated Steve Coogan (Laurel) is in part due to their insistence in spending long periods of time in each other’s company before production commenced. Admirable prosthetics and obvious intense character studies lift Reilly and Coogan’s performances into the pantheon of Streep’s Thatcher, Mirren’s the Queen and Oldman’s Churchill, where the discernible difference between actor and counterpart is negligible.

Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda are also impressive as Lucille Hardy and Ida Laurel, respectively. As Delfont astutely observes, “Two double acts for the price of one!”

Throughout the film, Laurel and Hardy riff and bicker like all good creative partnerships do, but an underlying respect and admiration from a lifetime of collaboration is the great leveller. Famously, when Hardy died in 1957, Laurel immediately retired, refusing to perform or act in film again without his partner – a loyalty that could never be broken.

It’s a testament then that this emotional portrayal of the comedic geniuses’ twilight years will leave the audience with absolutely no doubt as to what made the two men in black bowler hats so very, very special, and why their gags continue to raise a smile some 90-years after they first performed together.

star-4In cinemas: February 21, 2019
Starring: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson
Directed by: Jon S. Baird