Sunday, April 15, 2007

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) Tom Stoppard

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

- Hamlet, William Shakespeare

There you have the crux of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a literary romp through Shakespeare in which two supporting characters from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wander through Elisnore Castle trying to find out what the hell is going on. It’s based on the play by Tom Stoppard, which in turn was based on the Bard, therefore making it almost unpenetratable to those unversed with the story of Hamlet. It’s also one of the most literary films I’ve ever seen, there is no virtually no action, only three main characters and packed with dialogue. If all this sounds a bit dense for a film experience, think again, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is stylish, enjoyable and very, very funny.

I never actually made it the whole way through Hamlet (some day..some day) but I was familiar enough with the story to get the main gist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of the Prince’s old friends. When Hamlet’s father, the King, is killed, his personality changes. He becomes withdrawn, moody, some say insane. In a desperate move, his mother summons Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Denmark, to see if they can’t figure out what’s up with him. My shaky grasp on Shakespeare is at least better than the title pair, who spend the whole film trying to figure out why they’re there and what is happening. At times they drop in on a key scene from the play, but out of context it makes little sense. Most of the time they wander around the castle, a strangely constructed building which at times resembles an Escher painting. Doorways interlap, huge staircases lead to nowhere, interminably long corridors stretch on forever. There are echoing chambers where the laws of gravity don’t seem to exist. Rooms in which sheets of paper (actually the script of Hamlet) float around aimlessly; instead of reading them, Rosencrantz folds them up into paper airplanes.

If you think a film in which two men walk around a castle talking a lot sounds boring, you’d be wrong. There are jokes, wordplay, beautiful visuals and a very funny and fast-paced game of Questions.

The film would be nothing without it’s cast, especially Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, who play the title roles. Guildenstern is the sensible one, the thinker, at times stubbornly serious. Rosencrantz is the joker, the messer, a bit of a goof who refuses to sit down and figure out what the hell is going on. They compliment and accent each other, without the other, each would flounder, trapped within the confines of their own personalities. Their interactions with each other are a total delight to witness, conversation bouncing off the walls because there’s not much else to do. One of my favourite exchanges was the following:

Rosencrantz: Did you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
Guildenstern: No.
Rosencrantz:Nor do I, really. 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 the fact that one is dead, which should make all the difference, shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never *know* you were in a box, would you? It would be just like you were asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you. Not without any air. You'd wake up dead for a start, and then where would you be? In a box. That's the bit I don't like, frankly. That's why I don't think of it. Because you'd be helpless, wouldn't you? Stuffed in a box like that. I mean, you'd be in there forever, even taking into account the fact that you're dead. It isn't a pleasant thought. Especially if you're dead, really. Ask yourself, if I asked you straight off, "I'm going to stuff you in this box. Now, would you rather be alive or dead?" naturally, you'd prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, "Well, at least I'm not dead. In a minute somebody is going to bang on the lid, and tell me to come out."
[bangs on lid]
Rosencrantz: "Hey you! What's your name? Come out of there!"
Guildenstern: [long pause] I think I'm going to kill you.

One of the best things about the film is the knowingness. Hamlet is a play about acting, a play about a play. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a film based on a play, about a play, featuring actors playing actors, acting out a puppet show, based on a play, for actors. If all that seems a tad confusing, don’t worry. Even if you have no idea what’s going on, there’s comfort to be taken in the fact that the two main characters don’t have any idea either.

Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?
Guildenstern: Words. Words. They're all we have to go on.


Ninquelosse said...

Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! *coughs* I'm sorry...I can't think of anything more coherent to say right and a friend are currently (and secretly-ish) filming a version, with one of us playing both lead roles.
We're using that cool split-screen twins effect...

Catherine said...

Like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap! Yay! She was so my idol when I was 10 or whatever, the "crazy" twin who pierced the other one's ears with a needle. I saw that with my dad in the cinema and we laughed for weeks.

Your version sounds hilarious too. In a mind-fuck kind of way.

Ann Marie said...

I read Hamlet last semester, needless to say I can't remember much of it as I read it in a hurry the day before the exam. I do remember hearing about this film, or possibly the play, in one of the lectures though and thought it sounded good.

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