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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Image Entertainment

Starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss

Written and directed by Tom Stoppard


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Alas, poor Stoppard.

When it opened at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966, the clever stage comedy Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead made its playwright, Tom Stoppard, an overnight celebrity. A fellow of infinite jest and formidable intellect, he had taken Shakespeare's Hamlet and turned it inside out like a sock puppet. He made Elsinore a nether-realm sharing a ZIP code with Beckett's Waiting for Godot. We can imagine R & G's two cosmically bewildered clowns passing Godot's two tramps on the road joining both plays.

This pomo-chic exercise in cerebral vaudeville baffled many, irked several, and fascinated just enough to attract the attention of British theater's most influential grandees. Soon it opened at the National, where the promotion ranked Stoppard (age 29) alongside Moliere, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. When R & G transferred to Broadway, it took the Tony and the Drama Critics' Circle awards for Best Play. Was a movie version ever in doubt?

In an interview on this DVD of the 1990 film, Stoppard reveals that he had a list of possible directors, all strong candidates, but ended up in the big chair himself because nobody else (he believed) would willingly "commit violence" to the play's script, which after nearly 25 years had marbleized into a modern classic. That's too bad. His heavily revised screenplay occasionally tickles with Stoppard's wit and word games; however, other essentials got lost between stage and screen.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead follows two bit-part nobodies from Shakespeare's tragedy. They have been summoned to Elsinore, where the king orders them to spy on Prince Hamlet for reasons they cannot comprehend. Played with colorless deadpan by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, these clueless pawns are now Stoppard's doomed leads. When they're not intersecting the events of Hamlet, they're pondering the implications and limitations of their incomprehensibly stage-managed — and unalterably predestined — roles.

On the road they meet an itinerant theater troupe led by the flamboyant Player (Richard Dreyfuss, stealing the movie's most dynamic scenes), an eloquent rogue who's more clued in to R & G's circumstances than they could ever hope to be. As R & G are moved by external forces toward their preordained end, their musings on probability, death, being and not-being set up verbal and visual jokes like New Yorker cartoons. Stoppard's Laurel & Hardy innocents find themselves plunked into a world where offstage powers control unknown events impacting them in life-or-death ways. "We are tragedians, you see?" says the Player. "There is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily."

To truffle out the "meaning" of it all is to overburden Stoppard's extended conceit. All its collegiate philosophizing isn't deep or original, but Stoppard does give post-Beckett existentialism some welcome Monty Pythonesque tweaks. So the value and entertainment come in how it's presented. On stage, the sprightly teleological riffs and bebop dialogue delight as ends in themselves. Here they're leaden and compromised. What happened?

Adapting any flesh-and-blood stage play to a 2-D screen is a tricky thing. A play is — at least had better be — an immediate, intimate experience with no barrier between us in the audience and whatever the playwright and performers are offering. Sometimes that ineffable theatricality survives the transition to this manifestly different medium. Some of our favorite movies and TV events have happened this way. Some plays, though, can't help but lose too much in translation. The silver screen becomes a barrier. On the stage, R & G's boxed-in claustrophobia is part of the point of this play that's about the theater. So by "opening up" his rewrite to the movie's realistic location shooting and a spaghetti-western motif (Stoppard told his cinematographer to think Sergio Leone), the material got flattened in more ways than one. Stretching it onto the big screen reduced everything except the scenery.

The play's action occurs not from action, but from the scintillating zip and verve of the verbal razzle-dazzle. Perhaps unavoidably, then, as a movie it's lifeless. Even without the dramaturgical clashes, Stoppard's stint as a one-time-only director provides its own disappointments. Nearly all of his directorial choices are counterproductive. He both underused the medium (drowsy pacing and graceless camerawork drag the momentum) and overused its potential for student-film obviousness (he literalizes a verbal tennis match; script pages flutter like autumn leaves through scenes). The three leads deliver a few well-turned moments, but as a whole — even if you know nothing about the stage original — it's uninspired and only spottily entertaining or provocative.

Perhaps a Fellini, or Woody Allen in his long-gone prime, or maybe even some Baz Luhrmann, could give Stoppard's heady classic a worthy cinematic whirl. Instead we get two characters in search of an auteur.

The DVD

If a good stage production of Stoppard's original is hard to come by, the movie, for all its flaws, can serve as a make-do substitute. At least we're guaranteed something out of the ordinary. Image Entertainment obviously understands this. Instead of an indifferent transfer on a bare-bones disc, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead receives two-disc Special Edition treatment.

Disc One holds a faultless print and transfer (1.85:1, anamorphic) with two well-produced audio options: very good DD 2.0 stereo and excellent DD 5.1. (Oddly, a third option, DTS 5.1, is so poorly mixed that its presence must be an accident.)

Disc Two holds fine new bonuses produced for this DVD edition, namely four meaty interviews with the author and actors. These are simple, unattributed point-and-shoot interviews taped recently in New York City. (They're undated, but Richard Dreyfuss refers to his then-current 2004 Broadway run in Sly Fox, and Stoppard his simultaneous Broadway Jumpers revival.) Everyone reminisces with production anecdotes, and when they're asked what R & G is "about," even Stoppard is hard-pressed to clarify an answer. Stoppard fans will enjoy the genial playwright chatting for an hour about R & G's history from one-act sketch to stage triumph, and his adapting, casting, and directing the film. He dismisses the film's controversial Best Picture win at the Venice Film Festival (where jury president Gore Vidal pushed it through), all but admitting that Goodfellas actually deserved the prize. He also thumbnails more recent history and plays. "If I made the film now," he says, "I'd make it different and, I think, better." He adds that if he had a director's cut it would be shorter than the producers'. He defines Absurdism and Existentialism (as much as anyone can), noting which category R & G does not belong in.

Tim Roth (33 mins.) discusses acting, his own directing, indie vs. studio filmmaking, his experiences with Stoppard, Altman, and Tarantino, and the big difference between him and the cast of Friends. Gary Oldman (58 mins.) also recounts his experiences as a first-time director, his career peaks, his admiration for Coppola, and, poignantly, his frustrations with "the industry" today. Dreyfuss (45 mins.), fully engaged, reflects on R & G's world and his approach to the Player. Would-be actors will tune in to his thoughts on actors and acting, the differences between stage and film acting, and the "tackiness" of stardom. He sounds especially pensive on how he has settled into his post-"movie star" phase.

—Mark Bourne



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