Director: Tom Stoppard
Screenplay: Tom Stoppard
Based on the play by: Tom Stoppard
Producers: Emanuel Azenburg, Michael Brandman
Starring: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 118 mins
Filmed plays often come in for a hostile critical reaction, being deemed as static and uncinematic. In the case of Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of his own play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this was a criticism that was levelled by many, included Roger Ebert who gave the film a measly one star. While I understand complaints about filmed plays, there are many that are among my favourite films and which transcend their stage origins through quality of performance and opening out of the setting. 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross and A Thousand Clowns are all fantastic examples of a play working perfectly on screen. To this list, I would also add Stoppard’s brilliant film.
In Ebert’s review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead he states that the material was never meant for the cinema screen and proclaims himself a fan of the source play. Not being familiar with the play before I came to the film, I cannot be sure if this would have affected my own enjoyment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It should be stated early on, of course, that familiarity with the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is less important to one’s enjoyment of the film than familiarity with another play; Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Given the obvious connection between the two sources, one might expect those who seek out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to already be familiar with the Bard’s masterwork but many viewers have been drawn to the work through the Stoppard connection alone, or else by the central presences of Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss. Although I have seen many people online claiming that no prior knowledge of Hamlet is necessary, I would have to disagree. The story of Hamlet, and the tiny part which our heroes play in that text, is essential to Stoppard’s satire and without any knowledge of this a viewer may be forgiven for seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as rather pointless and bewilderingly uneventful.
But those who are unfamiliar with Hamlet need not bow out just yet. Although having studied the play will undoubtedly enhance your enjoyment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it is perfectly possible to appreciate the film with the more bare bones approach of having read a Wikipedia synopsis of the story first. For my own part, it has been a long time since I studied Hamlet or saw any of the previous screen adaptations and so I availed myself of this corner-cutting recap and found it more than adequate. It is somewhat necessary to appreciate the sacred place which Hamlet holds among the literary canon to enjoy the film’s humour but few could have escaped the play’s overwhelming influence completely. It is only those for whom this reputation and Shakespeare in general hold no interest whatsoever whom I would advise that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead probably isn’t for them.
At the point in his career when he made the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard had never directed for the screen (and currently he never has again) but he had worked on numerous film scripts, included sterling work on the excellent screenplays for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Steven Spileberg’s Empire of the Sun. By contrast, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a more visually modest work and yet Stoppard uses the magic of cinema brilliantly to move the play around his central characters, rather than the other way around. The bewildered central duo frequently find themselves in new destinations with no idea how they got there, why there have been brought there and, in one of the film’s most famous running gags, which of them is actually Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are student friends of the Dane, asked to spy on him to determine why he has been acting so strangely. Their appearances are infrequent and they are unceremoniously despatched at the play’s end with the film’s titular phrase. Stoppard’s film, then, is concerned with how exactly this enigmatic pair occupied themselves for the rest of the time.
Set largely in the huge, empty rooms of Elsinore castle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead follows Roth and Oldman as they try and define their place in the text. Occasionally they will stumble upon an important point in the story, which they usually watch as eavesdroppers from behind walls and doors, but for the rest of the time they occupy themselves by philosophising, arguing and playing intricately structured word games. The dialogue, in all its absurdist existential glory, is riveting and often so fast-paced that multiple viewings are an inevitability. Roth and Oldman are both great in their roles, with Oldman in particular displaying a flair for comedy as the more dunderheaded of the pair. As well as the brilliant wordplay, Stoppard peppers the film with physical comedy and a superb running gag in which Oldman keeps stumbling on famous inventions of the future, only for them to be destroyed in some way. Both actors were on the cusp of proper film stardom, with roles in Reservoir Dogs, JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Pulp Fiction on the horizon, but the real touchstone for their performances in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is their brilliant early work. The pair had already appeared together in Mike Leigh’s Meantime, while they had impressed separately in the likes of Made in Britain and Prick Up Your Ears. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead feels like a triumphant ending to this early British period of both actors’ careers.
As well as its two stars-in-waiting, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead also features an established Hollywood star in the great Richard Dreyfuss. Always one of my favourite character actors, Dreyfuss is unusually but, as it turns out, brilliantly cast as The Player, the leader of the acting troupe that comes to Elsinore to perform Hamlet‘s play within a play. Dreyfuss is not only convincingly English but also exquisitely theatrical, whether on stage or off. Also very good is Scottish actor Iain Glen in the supporting role of Hamlet.
It’s easy to see why so many critics were dismissive of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It is very clearly a film with an appeal limited to a certain group of people, and even then their enjoyment is not guaranteed. However, if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead ever feels static, meandering or empty then that is exactly the point and I think Stoppard has done a wonderful job in putting this across, creating a unique screen experience in the process. While some are of the opinion that this material should have been left on the stage where it belonged, I for one am glad it was not. A film to revel in, watch and rewatch, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a far cry from the more commercially viable antics of Stoppard’s Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love and, in my opinion, infinitely preferable. I was so won over by the film that I feel the only course open to me (perhaps the path written for me by my own personal playwright) is to redress the balance of Ebert’s one star review by awarding this modest masterpiece a full five stars.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is released on DVD by RLJ Entertainment on 8th February 2016. This 25th anniversary edition is a two disc set which features a generous three hours plus of bonus interviews with cast, crew and Stoppard himself.