Tuesday, 22 January 2019

STAN AND OLLIE (2018) review

Steve Coogan makes an impressive Stan Laurel in this gentle biopic, but the acting honours go to John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

You’ve just enjoyed one valedictory biopic, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), when another one comes along to mythologise a much-loved entertainment act. This time, it’s the bowler-hatted monochrome comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They pretty much monopolised cinema comedy in the 1930s, courtesy of Hal Roach studios, with a blueprint that still looks modern today: the innocent, daft one (Laurel, thin) and the one who isn’t as clever as he thinks he is (Hardy, fat), has been the subsequent model for everyone from Abbot and Costello – as the film bitterly notes – through Morecambe and Wise to Reeves and Mortimer.

Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody are also similar in that they’re flexible with the facts when it comes to the story the writers want to tell. Jeff Pope’s screenplay suggests that Hardy’s failure to negotiate his way out of his contract with Hal Roach (Danny Huston, entertainingly odious) and sign a new one with Laurel at 20th Century Fox, caused a simmering fault-line between the pair that blows up into a major fight in the final reel (if they still have film reels these days). The truth is slightly different and apparently less dramaticLaurel eventually signed a new contract with Roach, delivering two more outings for the duo in A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea (both 1939), and the pair did go on to make films for Fox.

Another thing Stan and Ollie and Bohemian Rhapsody have in common is that they’re finely crafted, valedictory fairy tales. In Pope’s script, there’s much talk that “the show must go on” Queen wrote a song of the same name expressing exactly the same sentiments, funnily enoughand, at the expense of Ollie’s failing health, their final theatre tour of the United Kingdom in 1953 fulfils that showbiz cliché, making sure the Laurel and Hardy legend goes out on a high. (In another curious parallel, Bohemian Rhapsody does exactly the same thing with Queen’s triumph at Live Aid, shortly after Freddie’s announces to the band that he has AIDS). Delightfully, the film starts and finishes with perhaps their most famous routine, the dance from Way Out West (1937), firstly when it was committed to celluloid in the Hal Roach studios, the second time sixteen years later at the triumphant end of a show in Ireland. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Bohemian Rhapsody is also similarly bookended by Live Aid).

Like the Queen biopic, the story really isn’t the main reason to see Stan and Ollie. The joy of it is in the performances. Everyone will talk about Steve Coogan (Stan) and John C. Reilly (Ollie), but elsewhere in the cast there are some terrific characterisations. As the film’s publicity notes, the duo’s wives make a “formidable double act” of their own: Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) is diminutive and feisty, always looking out for her “Babe” (Ollie’s ironic nickname); Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Nina Arianda) is amusingly blunt and wary of the organiser of the tour, Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones), to the point where she comically always refuses to sit next to him. 

Jones’s Delfont is a real highlight, the archetypal, smooth managerial hypocrite with a bounder’s moustache. He can barely wait to be out of Stan an Ollie’s company when the tour starts, but as soon as audiences pick upafter he’s manipulated them into doing public appearances for no extra money, naturally – he’s overflowing with compliments. When Ollie is taken ill, Delfont is quick to suggest that Stan carries on with another partner, sharply reminding him as they have breakfast at the Savoy hotel that “those sausages won’t pay for themselves.”

Steve Coogan is very good as Stan, mastering the peculiar tone of voice, the bemused expressions and the famous slapstick routines, but, no matter how good he is, you can’t help feeling you’re watching Steve Coogan in a pair of prosthetic ears.

Reilly is another matter. He’s exceptional. He inhabits the part of Ollie to the point where you’re unaware you’re watching an actor in a fat suit. Reilly simply is Oliver Hardy. He’s the beating heart of the film: an innocent, big, soft-natured man who, the film indicates, only became famous because of Laurel’s dedication to writing and (uncredited) directing, and who had a – fatal – weakness for gambling and the expensive high life. There’s a very moving moment when Lucille and Ollie are cuddling in bed, his tiny wife dwarfed by the bear-like Hardy. “What do you see in a fat old man like me?” Ollie grumbles. “That’s my husband you’re talking about,” Lucille gently admonishes him (and Henderson’s American accent is faultless).

You can’t have Hardy without Laurel,” Stan states emphatically and he remains true to his word, at the eleventh hour walking out on a performance with Nobby Cook (John Henshaw) as a substitute Ollie. That’s commendable, not to say heroic, but here’s a darkness to the film hovering just out of shot, with Pope’s suggestion that Laurel and Hardy were so trapped by their reputations that they couldn’t help but give their audiences what they wanted. Just two examples: as they arrive at a rundown hotel in Newcastle and, later, at the much flasher Savoy, the duo go into crowd-pleasing comedy routines, their private and public personas fused together.

No matter. Stan and Ollie is a beautifully made, affectionatethough perhaps too sedate – appraisal of two exceptionally funny entertainers in their (unforgiving) twilight years.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR, Channel 4, 7 January 2018


An underplaying Benedict Cumberbatch (below) was on fine form in an
incisive dissection of the story behind the 2016 Brexit referendum.

George Orwell was a genius. His dystopian masterpiece, the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, was written just over 70 years ago, but in it he managed to pinpoint the most worrying malaise of modern culture. To summarise the book: under a totalitarian state, information is controlled to such an extent that facts and the past can literally be rewritten. Because of this, the book’s anti-hero, Winston Smith, can never be sure of events that happened – the ‘true’ history only exists in his memory – or even what year it actually is. As one of the slogans of the controlling Party has it, “Who controls the past controls the future.”

For all his brilliance, Orwell didn’t anticipate the internet. Compared to the online anarchy of information we now have, the Party’s singular control of documents, newspapers, books, magazines, films and television looks distinctly old fashioned. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, everyone believed in the Party because the Party controlled everything; here and now in 2019, no one knows what to believe because you can’t be sure of the provenance of anything any more.

The man who’s done a lot to accelerate the rise of this climate is political strategist Dominic Cummings; it’s also a pretty safe bet that he’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four. The central figure of James Graham’s film drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cummings was the architect of the Vote Leave campaign, which swung the result of the UK’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union in favour of withdrawing. Compellingly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Cummings certainly knew how to manipulate information, which he did with the aid of the Canadian analytical consultancy AggregateIQ, whose sinister mission statement was “integrating, obtaining and normalising data from disparate sources.”

Cummings had a messianic zeal the digital age, insisting to his campaign team that “We are going to be making decisions based on science and data… no advertisers, no snake oil salesmen, or fucking Saatchis. We’re gonna follow algorithmic, statistical analysis.” Thanks to AggregateIQ he did, although the whole process was unethical. The company targeted three million disenfranchised voters who could swing the referendum in Leave’s favour through accessing information on social media sites, together with competitions and adverts that had nothing to do with the referendum but, worded correctly, could build a data profile of the people interacting with them. Cummings clearly knew AggreateIQ’s methods were immoral, as he kept the real reason for the young Canadians’ presence in the Vote Leave HQ hidden from his staff.

Despite Cummings’ belief in a new political discourse – his aloof disdain for what he saw as political dinosaurs, i.e. MPs, were some of the drama’s highlights – his tactics came down to sound bites, inflammatory slogans and unsubstantiated claims. Most famous, or rather infamous, were Take Back Control’ and the claim that, having left the EU, the £350 million the UK apparently paid the EU every week would be spent on the NHS. Look at the slogan again; it doesn’t say that the money – which its been subsequently proved never existed anyway – would or will be spent on the NHS, it just suggests it. That this was the main selling point on the campaign bus (above) shows how far Cummings’ independent campaign was able to flout electoral regulation, something that exasperated Craig Oliver (a quietly simmering Rory Kinnear), in charge of the Remain camp.

Kinnear featured in an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror anthology series, which warns of how technical and scientific advances can get dangerously out of hand. Famously, Kinnear played the prime minister in ‘The National Anthem(2011), in which, to save the life of a royal princess, he had to fuck a pig live across all media platforms. This time, in a drama that played out very much like a Black Mirror story in it's combination of black farce and tragedy, it was the whole country being shafted.

Farce: Cummings’ electoral “edge” resulting in a war of words over a threatened, non existent tidal wave of immigrants from Turkey, who wasn’t even an EU member. Tragedy: the murder of Remainer MP Jo Cox, the first British politician to be assassinated for decades. In the only scene that Iooked like artistic licence, Cummings and Oliver met shortly after Jo’s murder, the latter sullenly warning his opposite number that, in knowingly provoking racism, bigotry and violence, Cummings had no control over what he’d let loose. Equally as bad, Oliver accused him of developing a culture in which no one believed anything and just yelled at each other.

Fast forward to this week in 2019 and there’s been a lot of yelling at the media village outside parliament. During a TV interview, Remainer Tory MP Ann Sourby MP was branded “scum” and a “Nazi” by nationalists, then was harassed by the same mob in the street on the way to the House of Commons. She commented “This is what’s wrong with our country”, a wrongness Brexit: The Uncivil War squarely laid at Cummings’ door.

Forty years ago, Graham’s film would have been a Play for Today; fifty years ago it would have been an Armchair Theatre. In both cases, it would have been essential viewing on one of only three terrestrial channels. Today, Brexit: The Uncivil War was lost in the general, eternal babble of 24/7 media culture. Some of our more right wing newspapers even gloated that more people watched the football. 

Reflecting on events long after the campaign, a disillusioned Cummings concluded “It’s all fucked.” Even though his intellectual arrogance contributed to that situation, it’s hard not to agree with him. I’m sure George Orwell would have.