The originals. via Wikimedia

Stan & Ollie

Directed by Jon S. Baird. Starring John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston. Length 94 minutes

It’s 1953. After starring in more than 100 films the legendary comedians Laurel & Hardy no longer draw crowds. But “the show must go on”. So says Ida Laurel, Stan’s wife, in an elegant English bar, and Ollie repeats it to his wife Lucille. Sixteen years have passed since that distant 1937 when the two greats filled the cinemas all over the world with their goofy sketches.

Hollywood doesn't want them anymore so they try their luck in Britain – a theatre tour for their ageing fans and a possible film.

Upon arrival their young producer (Rufus Jones) treats them shabbily; there are no bellboys in the hotel and the hotel is actually a boarding house – a far different standard to what they are accustomed. Laurel & Hardy are still Laurel & Hardy, but the magic is wearing thin.

Yet Ollie is still a pompous bully; Stan is still clumsy and gauche. Their faces have not lost their comic vigour, although their bodies have become weaker, weighed down by alcohol.

With them travel their wives, women with two very different temperaments. Ida (Nina Arianda) is young, determined, and brisk and has a strong Eastern European accent; while Lucille (Shirley Henderson ‑‑ Mirtilla Malcontenta in the Harry Potter films) is thoughtful, worried, and attentive.

The two comedians ignore their fatigue, continue to study and to try, and their dates multiply. From the hammer sketch to the two-door sketch, their comedy conquers the public. But something is wrong. Over the years, small irritations have swollen into huge obstacles for both men. Despite their light-hearted brio (entertaining even today), their friendship is fracturing. Stan's steely logic and Ollie’s creativity are in danger of crumbling. During the tour old grudges emerge. Fissures appear in what once looked like an unbreakable partnership. But in the end, their friendship endures.

There’s plenty of laughter and nostalgia in Stan & Ollie. Movies about film stars are perhaps the hardest of the biopic genre, so the accomplishment of Stan & Ollie shows that, while cinema is a collective art where words and direction are important, it is also important – especially in this case ‑‑ to have two great actors. Reilly (who had to endure hours of make-up time to become Hardy) and Coogan (who loves also to write scripts, as is shown by his nomination for an Oscar for co-writing Philomena) can convey emotion and truth with a superb script which does not pander to box office bean-counters.

Emanuela Genovese is an Italian film reviewer.