Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Written & Directed by Tom Stoppard
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are schoolmates of the title character as well as sycophants for King Claudius in his machinations to eliminate his nephew as a problem. They ultimately agree to take Hamlet to England after he murders Polonius, unaware that Claudius’ letter to the monarchy calls for Hamlet to be killed. Hamlet discovers the letter and rewrites it so that upon arrival, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the ones hung. It can be argued that these two supporting characters navigate the narrative in complete ignorance as to the greater agendas at work in Castle Elsinore. They just sort of bumble about and then die.
In Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of his own play, we find Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) on horseback to Elsinore. The duo discovers a gold coin on the side of the road that Rosencrantz begins flipping. For over 150 flips, it always ends up on heads causing the pair to take a rest and wax philosophical about the nature of fate, and if the reality they exist within is broken and manipulated. It’s during this rest they encounter the theater troupe that will help Hamlet “catch the conscience of the King.” The lead Player (Richard Dreyfuss) has his group go through a litany of styles and offerings, including prostitution, that the troupe can offer the two men. But it’s through this performance that the pair finds themselves immediately transported into the middle of the court drama in Elsinore.
Now that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are with their old school pal Hamlet they play their small part that is familiar in the play, but once they are not needed, we follow them as they wander around the castle, killing time. Eventually, they suffer a crisis of identity, unsure which of them is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern with the denizens of Elsinore making the same errors. Rosencrantz keeps stumbling into inventions and scientific discoveries like the sandwich and the paper airplane. He also becomes aware of the concepts of gravity and volume displacement, but as soon as Rosencrantz is on the edge of epiphany, he’s distracted by events unfolding around him.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an excellent script with some really fantastic acting; however it doesn’t work entirely right on film. The material presented is just not something meant for film, it lives and breathes in a live theatrical performance. There are long stretches of people just talking, and the camera not really doing much of anything. Stoppard definitely tries in some moments to move the camera and look at a scene from an unusual angle, but it never really adds up to anything justifies this. Even Stoppard himself thought it was absurd that this movie beat out Goodfellas at the Venice Film Festival, which was a picture that is wrapped up in the trappings of moviemaking.
That’s not to say you won’t get any enjoyment out of this production, it just isn’t an experience that immerses you in the way cinema does. I think English majors and anyone familiar with Hamlet would get a kick out of the wordplay and meta-analysis of the play through the eyes of these side characters. It’s quite interesting to see a very young Gary Oldman and Tim Roth playing off of each other, contemporaries whose careers blossomed out of the 1990s at the same time and pace. This production will never replace seeing the play done live, but it does capture a specific time in British cinema with familiar faces bridging that gap between the theater and movies.