Tom Stoppard’s 1967 play, a mash-up of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with, of course, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was, after years of great fame and extraordinary praise, filmed by the playwright himself in 1990. Now 25 years on, the film – somewhat forgotten compared to the play – receives an anniversary edition re-release.
Disappointingly for what was such a tightly put-together play, the film version is plagued by several issues. The biggest, and the most ironic, is an apparent lack of understanding of the material by Stoppard, who shows little interest in his own rapid-fire absurdist dialogue and spends more time inserting out-of-nowhere moments of broad humour, as if out of concern all the talking might get dull. In fairness to him, he isn’t necessarily wrong: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is THE work of meta-theatre just as Hamlet is THE play, so fundamentally a play-within-a-play-which-is-itself-largely-concerned-with-“playing” doesn’t work. You’d have to be playing on the conventions of film, which differ from the conventions of theatre, and you’d have to construct your plot around a famous film, rather than a famous play. Citizen Kane, perhaps, or one of Hitchcock’s masterworks; you’d be translating, rather than adapting, the original. But these are intellectual objections, and not all viewers will necessarily find them relevant.
What’s more harmful to the film is a simple lack of interest. High-quality English actors Tim Roth and Gary Oldman work hard, but the psychological approach of both actors falls short of the vaudevillian quality suggested by the script’s Beckettisms. One also feels, on a shallower level, that Oldman, who is horribly miscast (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Batman Begins, the infamous Tiptoes) as often as he is wonderfully cast (Sid and Nancy, True Romance, Léon the Professional), would work better as the logically-minded leader Guildenstern than the earthy, worldly-wise Rosencrantz. Aside from all the problems, though, Richard Dreyfuss is fine and theatrical as the sleazy Player King, and Stoppard is plainly much more inspired when staging scenes from Hamlet than when shooting the brown, murky and static Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scenes. He conjures a lot of pomp and circumstance, and often seems to pre-empt Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of the play. Stoppard never directed again and, if he ever intends to, maybe he’d be better suited to adapting Shakespeare’s material than his own.
Audio and Visuals
The film was clearly made on a very low budget, but as an excuse that doesn’t really fly because so many low-budget productions are at least visually interesting, if not sumptuous. Similarly the score gets the job done for the most part, with a few out-of-place moments, and one is left wondering how much of the budget went on licensing Pink Floyd’s “Seamus” for the final thirty seconds of the film. On DVD the image has a reasonable level of detail, but there really isn’t that much worth paying attention to.
The box can’t really be blamed for re-using the movie poster, itself based on the original image for the play, but it’s an overly comical image which doesn’t really convey the work’s tone. Amusingly, the DVD’s spine looks just like Mission: Impossible II, which is even worse! Once you put the disc in you’ll get a static menu with another version of the same image, and a subtitles on/off button.
On the first disc we get the film and an interview with Stoppard, while on the second disc we get another interview with Stoppard, plus Oldman, Roth and Dreyfuss. These interviews are long, around an hour each, in-depth, and quite interesting, though the film rarely remains on the topic for long. Stoppard’s interviews are the best, especially the first one, and it is entirely unsurprising to hear him reveal he had little interest in film, was in over his depth as director, and was so versed in stagecraft that the idea of camera movement never even occurred to him until it was suggested. The very best DVD special features give you a new appreciation for the film and the same is achieved here in a way, as you’ll count yourself lucky for even the briefest cinematic flourishes, such as staging the game of questions as a tennis match. Still, the number one extra would have been a commentary by Stoppard, and it’s hard to recommend this set of extras without one; perhaps he couldn’t be arsed to sit through it.
If you don’t know the play, then you’re strongly advised to read or see it before you check out the film. If you know the play and haven’t seen the film, you’re missing very little, and if you’ve seen the film and nonetheless still want to own it then this is the best release it’s ever received. Still, there is nothing about this repackaging to get excited about.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – 25th Edition is out on DVD today (8th February), will you be checking it out? Do you agree or disagree with our take on the film? Let us know in the comment box below!