Sure, it’s fun to catch the latest flick at the multiplex, or grab the newest release at a video store, but sometimes you just gotta say, “Out with the new, and in with the unknown.” There are plenty of older flicks out there that are worth a rental, but never registered on your radar. In Don’t You Forget About, we remember the long-gone gems, so you don’t have to.
To truly appreciate Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, it would help if you were a Hamlet nerd. It would also help if you liked 16th century frills and ruffles, English accents and anachronisms.
In 1990, Tom Stoppard brought his flip-flopped play to the cinema, casting the youthful and charming Gary Oldman and Tim Roth up front. On the surface, it’s the story of Hamlet from the perspectives of the Danish prince’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For those of you that don’t know the play, Hamlet’s king father is killed by Hamlet’s uncle, who steals the throne and marries Hamlet’s mother, then Hamlet goes mad and everyone dies. Except that in R&G, this is only a distant side-story. R&G is about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being called into existence, tossed into Hamlet‘s world and their quest to figure out what the hell is going on.
Throughout the film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are constantly mixed up with each other. Even they do not know who they are and try to name each other. We aren’t supposed to know who is who and maybe neither one is the other or they are both, but for the sake of sanity, Oldman will be Rosencrantz and Roth will be Guildenstern, as their names appear in the credits. But keep in mind, this doesn’t matter.
Ebert dissed the film when it first came out. As if zero stars weren’t enough of a slap in the face, he called it “boring and endless,” saying that it “lies flat on the screen, hardly stirring.” While Ebert meant he himself was bored, that’s actually the point of their lives. They are minor characters in the play with no true purpose whose existence runs on repeat and that’s what Stoppard was getting at.
In a way, it’s a little depressing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the only real, human characters in the play. Everyone else is pre-wired on script. They can’t interrupt and they can’t change anything. They’re lost and almost completely alone. In this, Stoppard hints at the darkest corners of our own lives. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die.
The entire film is actually about death. Throughout, it pokes questions at death. In one scene, Rosencrantz lies still on his back as if he’s dead. He opens his eyes and asks, “Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?” Of course, the logical Guildenstern says no but Rosencrantz continues. “It’s silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account that one is dead, which should make all the difference, shouldn’t it?” We see it as a conversation between the two characters but really, it’s directed toward us. It’s one of the many scenes that questions our preconceptions about death, which really is something that we know very little about.
It’s really a film fit for those who enjoy long afternoons of unproductive thought, much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. While they ponder their existences, failing to remember anything past this morning and unable to figure out why they’ve been tossed into a nut-house-of-a-play, the film prods us ponder our own fates, lives and purposes.
Helping lighten the intellectual load is the humour. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern banter back and forth like paddle ball, quick to quip and finish each others’ sentences. If you’re not on your toes, it may just whoosh on by.
Part of this is helped by Oldman and Roth’s match as a duo. Roth as the cynical, quick-witted Guildenstern is the perfect compliment to the dopey yet thoughtful Oldman as Rosencrantz. While Rosencrantz misses the obvious, Guildenstern skims by the profound. In Hamlet, no one cares who is Rosencrantz or who is Guildenstern or whether they get muddled together. Here, we see that they’re far more complex and actually very different. However, it’s Roth’s sharp tongue and Oldman’s lethargic expressions that bring their characters to life.
The only other real characters in the entire play are the Player (Richard Dreyfuss) and his troupe. They’re also the only ones in the play who know exactly what’s going on, what will happen next and where everything is headed. This is because they have been running the play on repeat. One of the smaller purposes they play in the film is driving Hamlet’s mise en abyme even further. [Mise en abyme is a literary term that means to put into abyss, a play within a play within a play.] In Hamlet, the characters watch a play that reenacts Hamlet which features a play that reenacts Hamlet. In this film, Hamlet is within Hamlet which is within Hamlet which is within R&G. Complicated? A bit. Beautiful? Very.
In short, R&G can be very confusing. You can’t watch this film with an occupied mind, like you can’t watch the Food Network on an empty stomach. It’s a very demanding film but if you keep an open ear and a close eye, it can be very fulfilling.