Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Two Obscure Shakespearean Characters Walk Into A Bar...

rosencrantz and gildenstern,movie poster,fi;m

So, here's the deal. There's nothing to even vaguely poke fun at with this movie. The only thing that even comes close is to the amazement at how young Tim Roth and Gary Oldman look in this movie. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was released in 1990, which is (sadly) almost twenty years ago. It was directed by the original playwright, Tom Stoppard. It's the only film that he's directed, but he's a well-known and well-respected writer.

For those of you that don't know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor and relatively obscure characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet. They are presented as friends of Hamlet and courtiers, and even in the original play, their identities are inexorably linked. Their original role is to escort Hamlet on his journey to England, with a letter from Claudius with instructions to have Hamlet killed. Ever the crafty (but hopelessly insane) fox, Hamlet rewrites the letter to instruct Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths, instead. The title of the film comes from a line in the play.

In Stoppard's film, the two characters wander aimlessly on horseback, not seeming to have a clear idea of who they are or where they came from. Guildenstern, played by Tim Roth is the smarter of the two, but also the most troubled. Rosencrantz's ignorance seems to be blissful, though he is occasionally pained by flashes of rationality and intelligence. Rosencrantz quickly discovers that a coin flipped will always land heads up, and proves this by flipping heads over 100 times in a row. This causes Guildenstern to question the nature of reality, of fate, of the random, and the law of probability. Guildenstern is consistently concerned with the nonsensical and increasingly existential situations that they find themselves in, while Rosencrantz merely mixes up their own names, and keeps flipping coins.

Richard Dreyfuss makes a brilliant appearance as the leader of a roving theater troupe calling themselves the Tragedians. Guildenstern likens them to prostitutes, peddling cheap entertainment for the exchange of gold. They serve a grander purpose, however: Through this theater troupe (with their comically over-large caravan/stage), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in the palace of Elsinor, smack dab in the middle of the story of Hamlet.

The film progresses along the skewed context of the play Hamlet, taking some time to check out Ophelia, play a game of Questions on an indoor tennis court (which Rosencrantz is reluctant to give up, long after the game has completed, and keeps trying to play in normal conversation), and have an amazingly bizarre conversation and dinner with the rapidly deteriorating Hamlet himself. They also encounter the Tragedians again, where they completely drive me insane. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch them perform the play Hamlet, even going so far as getting to the ending, where Hamlet meets his tragic end, but not before killing Claudius, as well as predicting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's own deaths. During the actual play (in front of Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, etc.), the Tragedians perform, and then within the play, they act as the king, queen, and Hamlet watching a play (as a puppet show), where the puppets act out the play. It literally makes me dizzy.

In general, the movie vacillates between existential absurdism and dialogue-driven mind-play. They have some incredibly stellar lines and conversations, where they interrupt each other, talk over each other, and volley back and forth in an extraordinarily rapid manner (and through long takes, as well; Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are much maligned and underrated these days). Their Questions/Tennis game is an incredible scene, mixing movement and words together, and is a rare time for Rosencrantz to shine. Guildenstern has some amazing lines, as well, such as "blood is compulsory," "maidens aspiring to Godheads, or vice versa."

Stoppard directs this film very much like a play. There isn't much camerawork, and there isn't a whole lot of shot-reverse-shot going on. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend a lot of time on screen at the same time, again reinforcing the idea that they're linked, and aren't able to exist without the other. Additionally, they don't seem to particularly enjoy each other's company, or like each other very much.

rosencrantz and gildenstern,movie,hamlet

They're very much like an old married couple, not entirely certain what they're doing, why they're together, or why they aren't able to be apart. They accept it as a given, and stick it out together, existing separately but intertwined, going on their adventure together, eventually meeting their deaths after escorting Hamlet (with another appearance of the Tragedians on the boat, further screwing with everyone's minds).

I highly recommend this movie. It's not for everyone, however. I would also recommend seeing it performed on stage, provided you're able to see a well-performed version. A lackluster or wavering performance would absolutely ruin everything. Roth and Oldman are a perfect combination of rough-and-tumble courtiers, lost, confused, questioning, and contemplating. Their personalities mingle perfectly, and they seem like lifelong friends, even if they can't remember how they met.

Ok, to wrap it up. Five tragic deaths out of five. Rent it, go see it on stage, watch it more than once if you don't get it at first. There's a lot going on, and it happens pretty fast. Watch Hamlet while you're at it. If you have to rent it, make sure it has either Kenneth Branagh or Mel Gibson in it (listed in order of purely academic integrity). It might help to understand where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is coming from.

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