Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are indeed dead, and this film is proof.
We're the opposite of people! We're actors!
Pretty much all anyone remembers about the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that they play some small role in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Beyond that, they generally make so small an impression that most theatergoers (and, perhaps, even the other characters in the play) would be hard-pressed to tell one from the other.
Playwright Tom Stoppard (an Oscar winner for his Shakespeare in Love screenplay and also the screenwriter behind Terry Gilliam's acclaimed Brazil and Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun) took pity on these two theatrical supernumeraries and conceived a daffy take on Hamlet that presents the play from their sorely neglected perspective. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the filmed version of Stoppard's play of the same name. Full of witty non-sequiturs and theatre in-jokes, the play has long had an enthusiastic following, but does its existential absurdism survive the leap from the stage to the screen?
Facts of the Case
The film follows Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman, Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban, Hannibal, Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Guildenstern (Tom Roth, Reservoir Dogs, Rob Roy, Planet of the Apes (2001)) in their misadventures on the periphery of one of the greatest stage tragedies of all time.
The central conceit behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the idea that characters in a play have a life independent of their moments before the footlights. Through this lens, Stoppard's play and film examine the nature of free will, life, and death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have free will, and complete lives so long as they are not on stage. They bicker, Guildenstern asks deep philosophical questions, and Rosencrantz comes within a whisker of several important scientific discoveries. Still, whenever their wanderings intersect with the other characters in Hamlet Shakespeare's will and words prevail. The two bumble about aimlessly, except when the requirements of the greater plot demand their action; then, they become purposeful and fluent, and deliver Shakespeare's dialogue crisply, even if they give the impression that they don't fully understand what they are saying. This is Stoppard's absurdist spin on the nature of life. Are we really any more free than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Are our ideas of free will and self-awareness real, or are they merely an illusion, a rug to be yanked out from under us when fate or circumstances (or the will of an unseen Playwright) require? Do we really understand the significance of our actions? Could it be that we are mere extras, our existence and purpose as superfluous to the grand scheme as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet?
Stoppard further underlines the tension between perception and reality by riffing on Hamlet's "play within a play" that catches the conscience of the king. Dreyfuss's Player and his band of Tragedians create the hapless duo's gateway to the world of Elsinore, thereby casting doubt on the reality of everything that follows. This indeed seems very like what life must be like as a minor character in a Shakespeare play, called to life by actors at whim and condemned to repeat the same actions over and over again wherever and whenever the play is performed.
Performances, more than any other element, carry the day in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Roth's aggressive, inquisitive Guildenstern balances well with Oldman's innocent, naive Rosencrantz. However, perhaps the most interesting character and performance in the play is the Player (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws, The Goodbye Girl, Krippendorf's Tribe). The Player exists in the original play, of course, but only in a role only slightly more important than the original Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In the hands of Stoppard and Dreyfuss the Player becomes an enigmatic presence, part guide and part heckler, deepening the two protagonists' confusion between reality and unreality.
Image Entertainment is responsible for this long-awaited double-disc edition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The first disc carries the film in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that lives up to the demanding standards established by other Image releases—in other words, minimally acceptable. The image is excessively grainy and noisy for most of its running time and lacking in definition. Colors seem too weak and washed out, tending to take on a pastel quality. Blacks tend to achieve only a sort of dirty grey appearance. It's not a completely terrible transfer, but I expected better from a film dating from as recently as the year I graduated from high school.
The audio mixes left me completely baffled. The disc includes a DTS 5.1 track, which seems like overkill considering the material. However, this is quite possibly the worst-sounding audio track I've ever heard, no matter the designation or description. There is a constant hiss under the audio, voices come across as slightly distorted, and for some unfathomable reason the bulk of the sound is limited to the left rear channel. I had thought that there were quality control standards necessary in order to place the DTS label on an audio track, but apparently I was mistaken. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track was a much better option, creating a fairly full sound environment, albeit with some hiss remaining under the audio and an overall feeling of congestion.
Disc Two holds the special features. At first glance, the idea of almost four hours of interviews with important forces in this production seemed like it would be a real treat. There is an interview with Stoppard that runs almost an hour, an interview with Oldman that runs to a similar length, about a half-hour of Roth, and 45 minutes of Dreyfuss. In reality, however, this is a case where less would clearly have been more, and some judicious editing would have been welcome. Stoppard's interview in particular is soporific, as he meanders through his theatrical career and life in general, touching only fleetingly on the film at hand. The one exception would be Dreyfuss's interview, which is refreshingly engaging and down to earth in tone. Rounding out the collection of special features is a stills gallery, which is of course lame, as stills galleries invariably are.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Herein is the greatest enigma presented by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: Stoppard's play (and indeed, his screenplay) may be witty and full of life, but his film is flat, listless, and lifeless. Perhaps Stoppard's direction and editing robbed the film of much of its needed energy and comic timing, but nothing in the film feels particularly poorly done. The film never fully recovers from the unspeakably tedious opening sequence, in which Rosencrantz flips a gold coin repeatedly, which always comes up "heads." This is meant to illustrate that the pair have entered a realm where the normal rules of the world, such as probability, no longer apply. However, ten minutes of these proceedings tend to belabor the point beyond all reason. The rhetorical tennis game between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a legendary hallmark of the original play, but as presented here it lacks something, and comes off as pretentious rather than witty.
Overall, the general lifelessness of the whole affair leads it to commit the worst sin that any film can: it is, well, boring. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is a reason Shakespeare's play is called Hamlet and not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that some things are best left in the wings, or to the imagination.
The material is solid, but the execution is lacking. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead should be an absolute joy to watch, but instead it's a long, tedious slog. The DVD isn't great, but in this case, it seems that the film got exactly the DVD it deserved.
Guilty! As an English teacher with an appreciation of theater and Shakespeare, I very much wanted to enjoy this film, but there is very little to be enjoyed here, either in terms of film or DVD.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Interview with Writer-Director Tom Stoppard
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