Did this film even have a trailer? I searched for ages to find a non-fan-made one and couldn’t. Mind you, the film itself wasn’t too easy to get on DVD until a few years ago, so there’s that.
I’m going to assume you’ve heard of Hamlet. If not, well, it’s The Lion King but with people. That Shakespeare and his time machine, stealing other people’s ideas, etc etc.
Anyway, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, which has been staged and adapted and even re-written over the centuries since its inception. My favourite take on it is Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which was adapted into the film I’ve chosen for this post.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s uni friends, charged by the prince’s villainous uncle to find out why Hamlet seems to have gone mad. They turn up, Hamlet takes the piss out of them, his uncle charges them to take the prince to England to have him executed and then they disappear after an attack by pirates, never to re-appear until the final scene where a messenger declares them to have been killed.
And that’s it. That’s all we know about them. They’re characters that exist to further the plot for two scenes and, once they’ve served their purpose, they are discarded. Stoppard built his play around the fact that they are cyphers, flat characters in a flat world, their lives nothing more than broad strokes. The chaotic plot of Hamlet sweeps them up like a strong current and they’re whisked away to their doom as they try to make sense of what’s going on around them.
The film adaptation has a young Tim Roth as Rosencrantz and a baby-faced Gary Oldman as Guildenstern … or does Roth play Guildenstern and Oldman Rosencrantz? Even the characters themselves are unsure, interchangeable as they are in the original Hamlet. As it stands, Roth is the more driven of the two, trying to understand what’s happening while the more playful Oldman generally reacts to what goes on around him and gets on Roth’s nerves.
It’s a strange film, shot in such a way to convey a delightful sense of eeriness and unreality. Settings change dramatically through pulling down a curtain or stepping through a door – much as would happen in a play, in fact. The events of Hamlet occasionally burst in and take over, changing the tone abruptly and then leaving the heroes to themselves just as abruptly, disorienting the audience as much as the characters. As Shakespeare himself put it, “the time is out of joint” – and Stoppard took this to heart, putting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a world where physics can stop making sense and where the laws of probability have packed their bags and gone home in a huff.
And the script… oh, the script. Tom Stoppard is a master of wit. The play is incredibly quotable, and you’ll often hear me crying “consistency is all I ask!” or declaring that England is a conspiracy of cartographers. And if I toss a coin, I will always always choose heads. Just in case.
If there’s a staging of the play near you at any time, I thoroughly recommend you go see it – but I also urge you to check out the film. It’s a weird way to spend a couple of hours, but your life will be all the more enriched for it.