Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead - DVD Review

'Even with a charismatic and capable pair as his leads, Stoppard's script makes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead an insufferable exercise in cinematic navel-gazing'.

A word of warning: if you're not familiar with the work from which Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead's title is taken, then it's quite likely that you'll spend the entire two hours of Tom Stoppard's 1990 film adaptation of his 1966 play utterly bewildered as to what's going on. Don't worry, though - those of us who instantly recognise it as a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet will only be one step ahead of you in wandering into a labyrinth of tedious pretention.

The starting point for Stoppard's film is intriguing, taking the minor characters of Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) from Hamlet and making them the central focus, allowing the events of Shakespeare's tragedy to largely occur off screen around them. It's a set-up which has potential, the peripheral pair providing a relatively blank canvas for Stoppard to paint upon as both writer and director.

Unfortunately, all Stoppard wants to do is make the Shakespearean duo he's taken hostage constantly spout absurdist philosophical waffle in a way that feels incredibly pompous and self-congratulatory. At one point, when describing an exchange they've recently had with Hamlet (Iain Glen), Rosencrantz exclaims to Guildenstern: "Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn't mean anything at all!" It's a sentiment which could easily be applied to Stoppard's entire film.

To be fair, Oldman and Roth deliver a brace of fine performances proving their talents a few years before either would become genuinely big names. There are a smattering of scenes where the duo are able to shine, such as a sequence which involves them firing questions back and forth at each other across a tennis court, make up the rules in quick-fire fashion as they go along.  But even with a charismatic and capable pair as his leads, Stoppard's script makes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead an insufferable exercise in cinematic navel-gazing.

Furthermore, the playwright's treatment of Shakespeare's original text struggles to satisfy. Most of the Bard's characters here are generic and unmemorable versions, aside from Glen's Hamlet who takes the frustrating nature of Shakespeare's tragic hero and transforms him into a hammy irritant. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead's take on the "To be or not to be" soliloquy gives Mel Gibson's attempt from the same year a run for its money for most cringe-inducing version seen on the big screen.

There are undoubtedly those who will tell you that if you don't like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, then it's because you don't "get" it. Much like many of the characters in Stoppard's film, they're talking condescending nonsense. Whilst there are some complex ideas contained within, it's not the understanding of them that's the problem, rather the writer and director's smug smarty-pants tone of delivery throughout.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was released on UK DVD on Monday 8th February 2016.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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