Home Video Hovel: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, by David Bax
The title characters in Tom Stoppard’s play and movie (his lone directorial effort), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead have occasionally been compared to the protagonists of Waiting for Godot. They are not dissimilar, in that they spend much time standing around in anticipation, talking between themselves. Yet in this case – and despite the slapstick and shenanigans of the heightened reality – they might be even more harrowing stand-ins for ourselves and our lives. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern seek purpose and, once they believe they have one, they strive to fulfill it. But it’s a lie. In the end, they’ve only been passing time until their one true use, to die, has been achieved.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, respectively, or at least they seem pretty sure which is which) are somewhat minor characters who eventually serve a somewhat less minor role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Stoppard retells the sorrowful Dane’s story from their point of view. Except the story itself only really progresses in the scenes that intersect with Shakespeare’s. Otherwise, they banter about what might be expected or possible from them while repeatedly crossing paths with The Player (Richard Dreyfuss), the leader of the theatrical troupe in the castle to entertain Hamelt (Iain Glen) and the king (Donald Sumpter).
It was the king who called them to the castle and hints begin to crop up that the two didn’t exist until the play needed them. For one thing, they don’t know which of them is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern. When they aren’t being dedicatedly, hilariously earnest about their supposed task, to root out what’s ailing the prince, they’re trying to understand the world around them. Rosencrantz in particular seems preoccupied with reasoning out the basic laws of physics, only to have his findings undercut when he attempts to demonstrate them to Guildenstern. Of course, what they fail to realize (and what The Player seems to understand) is that their world is not governed by such laws. As characters in a story, theirs in a world made of paper, in which traveling from one place to another (say, a castle corridor to the deck of a boat) happens as quickly as folding one page over another.
Stoppard the director is leashed to Stoppard the writer. He’s a stagebound stylist and, as such, he’s most comfortable letting scenes play out at length in open spaces like the courtyards and ballrooms of the castle. His close-ups are perfunctory and utilitarian. Still, he serves his material well. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead works as postmodern and existentialist literary critique and as a ripping comedy for the smart crowd.
RLJ’s new Blu-ray features a solid transfer in terms of color and grain but compression issues are apparent in instances with a lot of movement (luckily there aren’t many of those).
Special features include interviews with Stoppard, Oldman, Roth and Dreyfuss.
I am so happy when anyone discovers this movie! I stumbled across it on Netflix a few years ago and it’s become one of those that i must show to everybody. There is simply nothing more delightful than seeing a young Gary Oldman and Tim Roth playing word games and trying to decipher their roles in ‘Hamlet.’
Roger Ebert gave this zero stars, which seems bizarre to me, as I also enjoyed it. I was taught this in middle school alongside Waiting for Godot, which really made Beckett come off as boring in comparison.