The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Stan & Ollie,” click here.

The opening scene of “Stan & Ollie” takes place at the pinnacle of the Laurel and Hardy age; in a lovely long take, the comedy duo (Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, respectively) head to their soundstage, making small talk using the affectionate shorthand reserved for good friends. They chat about Hardy’s recent divorce (and more recent engagement), touch on contract negotiations, make plans for a weekend boat trip with Myrna Loy and other Hollywood stars.

The next scene is set more than a decade later. Things aren’t going so well; now the two, who haven’t worked together in years, are headed out on a grueling tour of the U.K. in an attempt to reignite careers that have long gone cold. That affectionate shorthand is now punctuated with awkward silences, and the chumminess is shadowed with mistrust.

Both Reilly and Coogan give outstanding performances. It would be easy to say that Reilly is unrecognizable as the portly Hardy, except that you can still see his empathetic eyes peering out. Coogan deftly switches between playing Stan’s onscreen personality — the simpler, more innocent one of the pair — and his real one as the brains behind the majority of their sketches. It’s work to be proud of.

And they both get totally outmatched.

Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson play Ida Laurel and Lucille Hardy, the women behind the men. The two have nothing in common except that each is currently the wife of a famous man. Lucille is a sensible American girl, worried for her husband’s health and averse to doing the publicity required to fill the seats on the British tour. Ida is a Russian ballerina who moved to Hollywood apparently to continually remind everyone that she is a Russian ballerina who moved to Hollywood. For appearance’s sake the two have to maintain the facade of friendship, so they smilingly attend shows together. Underneath that polite pantomime is a war of riffs and rips. Underneath that, there’s even more.

Though the two women have a barely restrained dislike for each other, they also are the only two women in the world who understand what it’s like to be married to these fading stars. While Stan and Ollie have a complicated relationship — they like each other, they need each other, but they don’t necessarily like how much they need each other — Ida and Lucille’s requires the same amount of balance, if not more. While Stan and Ollie keep their focus on Stan and Ollie, Ida and Lucille are not only engaged in their own rivalry, but are doing it while caring for their husbands’ needs at all times.

Their presence in “Stan & Ollie” illustrates what a lot of women do a lot of the time — balance their relationships on one hand, while balancing the needs of their family on the other, while balancing work on the other, while trying to wave all that guilt away with the other. (All women have at least four hands.) With no more than four or five scenes, Arianda and Henderson quite nearly dominate the film by showing just how strong a woman has to be to be the woman behind the man, and how she has to subdue that strength so that he can have his spotlight.