229. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Tom Stoppard

FEATURING: , Tim Roth, , Iain Glen

PLOT: Two of Hamlet’s old school chums are summoned to Elsinore to glean what afflicts the moody prince. Along their journey they encounter a traveling troupe of Players, whose leader offers to a put on a performance for them. Magically transported to the castle from the Players’ stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped within the convoluted machinations of the royal court, confused as to their own identities and struggling to keep their heads while discussing basic questions of existence and fate.

Still from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

BACKGROUND:

  • Adapted from his own 1967 hit play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is the first and (so far) only film directed by accomplished playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (who also contributed to Brazil).
  • The title comes straight from “Hamlet,” from the very last scene (Act V, Scene II). Arriving in Denmark to find nearly everyone in the royal court dead, the English ambassador bemoans, “The sight is dismal,/And our affairs from England come too late./The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,/To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,/That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
  • Though it received tepid-to-positive reviews from contemporary critics (with most of the negative reviews comparing it unfavorably to the stage experience), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern did bag the top prize at the 1990 Venice Film Festival.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I suspect I take no risk of spoiling the ending (the title itself gives something of a hint as to our heroes’ ultimate fate) by singling out the execution scene of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. The former has a look of a man of reason who’s been broken by the illogical; the latter sports the complementary look of a man of whimsy who’s been worn down by niggling reality. Both accept their fate in states of differing exasperation.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Heads,” “heads,” “heads”…; am I Rosencrantz or are you Guildenstern?; play within a play within a play within a movie

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tom Stoppard’s semi-medieval world is one of modern wordplay, post-modern comedy, existentialism, tragedy, and ambiguous identity. As it stands, the movie is perhaps the only example to be found in the “Nihilistic Farce” genre of cinema.


Clip from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

COMMENTS: Sometimes it’s just better to stay home. This lesson is learned the hard way by the hapless protagonists of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Forgoing the meaty substance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Stoppard instead focuses on the gristle—namely, the fate of two bystanders whose only fault is being friends with the titular prince. Summoned by a messenger, Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) leave the comforts of their casual existence, traveling with all due haste at the whim of the queen and pretender king of Denmark. On the way, they are forced to ponder the nature of an increasingly sinister non-conspiracy.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern each act as a hemisphere of the brain contemplating madness (in the form of a melancholic Danish prince). Roth’s Guildenstern is a being of reason, looking at the world with an eyebrow raised in incredulity and weariness. He hopes (in vain) to get to the bottom of things, and in the movie’s first half is the most proactive of the pair as they try so to do. Oldman’s Rosencrantz is more child-like and prone to wonder, spying anachronistic science-phenomena everywhere, only to fail utterly when demonstrating his discoveries under the skeptical gaze of Guildenstern. Oldman exudes an endearingly apologetic air, as his character feels strategically inept compared to his counterpart. At the halfway mark, when the two compatriots dine with their erstwhile friend Hamlet, things shift tonally. Guildenstern seems to realize that logic and empiricism are not working. Rosencrantz comes more into his element (intuition), but by the time the shift is made, the wheels of motion have already spun too long.

Stylistically, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is like both a play and a movie. There is the rapid-fire banter (character asides, “game of questions”, and Shakespearean dialogue) and the clearly delineated sets (the tennis court, gardens, bathhouse, and the tragedians’ wagon) expected from a stage-to-screen adaptation. However, the proceedings are spiked with tricks and touches that are flagrantly filmic. The protagonists walk with speed and purpose from one area to another, only to open a door leading back to where they just stood. Rosencrantz’s observations of as-yet-to-be-discovered science—Newton’s Cradle, gravitational effects, a double-layered cheeseburger—all smack of commentary on the sheer artifice of the whole venture. And the framework of the film screen is key for the deep-layer climax where Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s story collides its most forcefully with the background Elsinorean shenanigans.

The third act contains a four-tier matryoshka doll set piece that plumbs depths not often explored in movies. The Player (Richard Dreyfuss) shows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a marionette performance within a dumb show, explaining how such things are required to make the subsequent action understandable. The conscience of the king in the play is plucked, and he rises. A jump cut brings us to the royal court performance in Elsinore, where Claudius rises while shouting, “Bring me some light!” The narrative order provided by the puppet show within the dumb show within the performance collapses under the weight of reality, and the heartless gears of fate are set into their final, deadly grooves.

This fine concoction of confusion, wit, and understatement is spiced up by some supreme (and wonderful) hamminess in Dreyfuss’s Player. He steals every scene he’s in, and it seems that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are happy enough that he does so. They never wanted the attention; especially since their summons to Denmark has brought them only increasingly bad luck. Fate plays a cruel joke in plucking up two fellows who are non-committal to the point of having forgotten which one of them is which. Tom Stoppard makes the best of their benighted circumstances, and in the process provides us with one of cinema’s more chuckle-able existentialist manifestos.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of Tom Stoppard’s too-clever-by-half puzzle boxes, an Oxford schoolboy’s idea of the playwright as Rube Goldberg with razor smarts and a fashionably breezy hint of Beckettesque mischief… Stoppard’s direction leaves [the cast] stranded; their absurdity becomes too weighted, too heavy. In airing his play out, he’s let the air out of it. More than that, he’s sandbagged it.”–Hal Hinson, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“With all these plays within plays, we come closer to Shakespeare’s fascination with illusion and reality and, oddly enough, to more modern sensibilities. However, the more absurdist elements of this play get exasperating after a while.”–Kathleen Maher, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“Extended, circular interlocutions about the fragility of life or the meaning of reality or the existence of meaning itself were certainly more fashionable in the late ‘60s, when this play was first presented, but you need not be obsessed by existential angst to enjoy this slippery mind-screw. “–Sean Murphy, Pop Matters (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ (PG) – 1991 interview with Stoppard by Carla Hall of the Washington Post

SparkNotes: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – This analytical “cheat sheet” refers to the play, but is useful for understanding the film, too

Richard Dreyfuss reflects on ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ on the film’s 25th anniversary – Short comments from actor Dreyfuss

Hamlet Philosophy: what does ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ say about Free Will? – “Philosophy Tube” discusses whether Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a critique of Hume’s theory of compatibilism

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” – The text of Tom Stoppard’s original play

DVD INFO: For the longest time in the early ’90s, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was difficult to find on VHS. Then a 2 disc DVD set came and went in 2005. Now there is a (somewhat) shiny new 25th-Anniversary Blu-ray release (buy), which boasts competent video (of the “not great, but no real complaints” variety) and decent sound (of the “good but not great” variety). The movie found thereon is a gem (hence its inclusion here), and buyers can take heart in the wealth of information provided by interviews with the four main forces behind the movie: Tom Stoppard (two separate interviews), Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss. All but one of the interviews is a direct lift from the previous DVD release, but an hour-long chat with Tom Stoppard made in 2015 makes this new edition the “go-to” version—until, perhaps, Criterion gets their hands on it and puts out something a little more cleaned up.

Image Entertainment also re-released the film on DVD (buy), although with a single DVD disc it is obvious not all of the Blu-ray supplements can make it (no special features are listed on the cover). Therefore, DVD-only households may want to look into obtaining a copy of the 2005 2-disc release instead (buy), whose disc of supplements contains most of the interviews listed above (with the exception of Stoppard’s latest interview).

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is also available on-demand (rent or buy) if supplements are not an issue for you.

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