I had the strange and pleasant experience of watching Tom Stoppard’s 1990 film of his own play, Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a bizarre play, dreamlike and teetering on the edge of absurdist. The characters of Rosencranz (Gary Oldman, who notably played Mr. Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth who now plays the cranky genius in Lie To Me) wander around the production trying to figure out who they are (they don’t even know which one of them is Rosencranz and which is Guildenstern), what their role is, and how the world operates.
I had read the play in high school and all I remembered was pages and pages of this:
He flips a coin 159 times in the play. All heads. Except for the last one. This gives you an idea of the general weirdness of the play.
The characters get themselves embroiled in the palace intrigue of rotten Denmark; it helps to have more than a passing familiarity with Hamlet if you want to understand what is going on. Much of the language comes directly from the play or is a witty parody of it. Many of the dramatic devices used in Hamlet are given a modern spin. There are plays-within-plays-within-plays, a stage manager who fills in the role of God, eavesdropping, and bouts of madness. The stage manager (Richard Dreyfuss) is rather unexplainable as a character, seeming to direct both the plays within the movie and the action of the movie itself. He seems both omnipotent and bound to follow the play to its grisly end. He dispenses wisdom, but not advice. He seems both Rosencranz and Guildenstern’s creator and executioner.
The dialogue is incessantly witty and thoughtful and dense. The visuals are simple but striking. There are moments with excellent comedic timing and hilarious absurdities but also moments where the characters ask important questions and can’t find answers. If you can put up with a moderate amount of head-scratching oddness this movie is thoroughly enjoyable.