What if your life is scripted ahead of time? What if everything you do or say is predetermined by some unseen author, and all you can do is play out your part until the inevitable conclusion, whatever it may be? Even worse, what if, in this great drama that is your life, you have only a minor role?
This is the dilemma faced by the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s screen adaptation of his own play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” In Shakespeare’s classic “Hamlet,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are friends of the prince of Denmark who find themselves used as pawns between the erratic prince and his throne-swiping uncle. Although their involvement is necessary in the story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver only a handful of lines in even fewer appearances.
So, if you exist solely to fill a brief role in a larger story, what do you do with the rest of your time? In the case of this duo, played by Gary Oldman (“The Fifth Element” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) and Tim Roth (“Four Rooms” and “Reservoir Dogs”), they spend their time trying desperately to figure out what’s going on and what they’re supposed to be doing. More troubling than those questions, they also can’t seem to remember which one is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern.
The primary pastime of our leading men is wordplay, though most of it is unintentional. If you’ve ever been amused, appalled, or baffled by the absurdity of the English language, “Rosencrantz” is your film. In a style that will remind fans of “The Princess Bride,” this movie takes great pride in its oddly insightful dialogue delivered at the strangest moments. The more adventurous among you will likely adopt the game of question-and-answer after seeing how well it is played by the protagonists.
Despite their fumbling search for answers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a bigger problem; a problem Shakespeare wrote for them; a problem that’s right there in the title: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. They’re just the unwitting victims of the royal drama unfolding around them, and they’re not even sure what their role is in all of this, so why do they have to die?
Because that’s the way it was written.
The only player in this tale who truly knows what’s going on is the leader of a traveling troop of actors, played by Richard Dreyfuss (“Jaws” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus”). He is fully aware that all are actors, the opposite of people, and that they have no choice but to play along until “everyone who is marked for death… is dead.” With the same unnerving accuracy with which the actors selected their performance for the king in “Hamlet,” the troop’s leader foretells precisely what will happen because he has done this before and will do it again.
Theatre buffs will no doubt be familiar with Tom Stoppard’s play, a famous example of absurdist comedy, while film lovers will be more familiar with Stoppard’s more recent work, the award-winning film “Shakespeare in Love.” The sense of wit and fun demonstrated in “Shakespeare in Love” can be seen here as well.
Unfortunately, the video of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” has gone out of print and is more than a little difficult to find. However, at least one video store in the greater Sylva-Cullowhee area is guaranteed to have a copy on-hand. Unless you’re willing to pay $25-40 for a used copy on e-Bay, you should be sure to take advantage of the opportunity to see this film, one which is sure to appeal to anyone who enjoys unapologetically smart comedy.
If nothing else, you won’t flip a coin again without thinking about Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and fate.
—–“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (1990)Written and Directed by Tom StoppardStarring Tim Roth and Gary OldmanCinecom Entertainment