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Stan and Ollie

Year: 2018
Studio: eOne
Director: John S Baird
Writer: Jeff Pope
Cast: John C Reilly, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston

As is my wont, I'm drawn to movies about real life, as much out of fascination to see how well actors, writers and directors can embody real people as I am interested in what actually happened.

We meet Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Hardy (John C Reilly) in a wonderfully choreographed single take shot of them at the height of their fame in the 1930s, making their way through a crowded studio backlot to the set of their new movie. As they make their way through cowboys, men in space suits, harried production secretaries and costumers running to and fro they're discussing their careers and how under the yoke of producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) they are.

Laurel's contract is up, and he wants the duo to strike out on their own, be their own producers and have a lot more say in their creative direction – not to mention more money than they're getting under the employee contract system of old Hollywood. They arrive on set, argue with the acerbic Roach and start the iconic saloon dancing scene from one of their classic comedies.

It's a quite beautiful sequence because it's not only visually inventive and interesting, the dialogue effortlessly puts you in both mens' frames of mind. Laurel can see freedom around the corner, but Hardy's contract has more time to run and he doesn't want to rock the boat with Roach or the studio. You can see the rift in the making that will affect both men later in their careers.

Then we cut to the early 50s. Their act is yesterday's news, their stars have faded and they're embarking on a stageshow tour of the UK to try and drum up more business and interest – especially because word is a powerful English producer is coming to see the show and might have a Robin Hood parody movie project that will restore them to their former glory.

But with the road taking its toll and old wounds bubbling up from the split that happened years before (we see it in flashback, after Hardy has agreed to meet a rival studio with Laurel but never shows up, opting for the security of his contract instead and leaving Laurel hanging), things aren't looking up. Crowds aren't coming in the numbers the pair and their terminally perky local promoter hoped, and stress levels rise.

Unfortunately, director John S Baird plays it for very prestige, mahogany-coloured drama rather than the emotional register I think it needed, a bit more Merchant Ivory than Oscar. It's not that I expected fire and brimstone, but when the pair have their pivotal confrontation at a post-show reception, you wonder for awhile if they're just doing another skit for the assembled crowd.

They haven't even raised their voices but when Laurel says 'you betrayed me' to his partner and friend, you realise you're watching a decade and a half of resentment boiling over. Instead it plays like two elderly nursing home residents discussing the weather over tea.

And look, I don't know anything about what either man was like in real life. They well have both been this faultlessly polite, keeping their tempers even when expressing long term anger. But as authentic as it might have been to the time or the people, it doesn't make for very good drama.

The whole film looks fantastic, the period detail is great, Coogan and Reilly look and sound the part and the direction is very sick and competent. But it's all rendered very twee, very simple and kind of slow.

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