"The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," Hamlet cries out in Shakespeare's immortal tragedy. In ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, the play's the whole world as we watch two minor characters from Hamlet become embroiled in the court intrigues at Elsinore.
Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) are first seen lumbering through a barren landscape, unsure of where they are heading, except for a strange feeling that they were sent for by a messenger. A troupe of itinerent players, headed by the Player King (Richard Dreyfuss), comes upon
them and offers to perform for them. But suddenly the troupe disappears and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves at Elsinore. As they stroll and trip through the murky, winding corridors of the palace, pondering their existence, the familiar drama unfolds around them. Before long, they
find themselves partaking of a plan to scoot the seemingly mad Prince Hamlet (Ian Glen) off to England and out of the hair of King Claudius (Donald Sumpter) and Queen Gertrude (Joanna Miles).
Finding themselves on a ship bound for England with a letter to present to the English king from Claudius, and Hamlet asleep in the hold of the ship, they finally think they've left the machinations of court life behind them. Curious as to the contents of the letter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
discover that the letter instructs the English king to cut off Hamlet's head upon their arrival. Since they read the letter out loud, Hamlet overhears them and when they fall asleep, replaces that letter with another which instructs the English king to hang Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When the
ship is taken over by pirates, Hamlet escapes back to Elsinore and his doom and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves with ropes around their necks.
It has taken over two decades for Tom Stoppard's hit London and Broadway production to reach the screen and it is obviously a labor of love for all concerned. Stoppard's intellectual word games and bits of comic business are exhilaratingly clever while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's antics as
they stumble in and out of Hamlet make them part Abbott and Costello, part Laurel and Hardy, part Olsen and Johnson, and part Vladimir and Estragon. There are bitingly fresh setpieces like an imaginary tennis question and answer game between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ("Foul! No rhetoric. 2 to
1!") and running gags like Rosencrantz's physics experiments (standing on a trap door and holding himself up by a rope which lowers the door, he comes crashing down to the floor below when Guildenstern joins him).
The film also plays like a "Goon Show" footnote to every Hamlet film ever made by viewing the tragedy from the eyes of two minor players. As depicted in ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, Hamlet is nothing more than a nutty paranoid schizophrenic. As the court stares down at Hamlet silently
mouthing "To be or not to be," the tortured prince looks like a class A screwball. Stoppard pulls off this depiction of tragedy as travesty with an upstart attitude that keeps the film spinning.
Unfortunately, Stoppard the director does not match the invigorating brilliance of Stoppard the writer. His direction is ploddingly pedestrian and suffers from a "Masterpiece Theater" stylistic atrophy. This hardening of directorial arteries is abetted by Peter Bizou's murky, downbeat
cinematography, which drags the film down into art-film bogs. To be completely successful, the film needs a light, slightly askew directorial sensibility, like a Richard Lester or Robert Altman. But this film has a heavy lugubriousness more in line with a bad Bergman film. But in an era of
retro-comedies and insult humor, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN more than makes up for its faults by being that rare film--a literate and thought-provoking celebration of the spoken word.
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