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Forgotten Films: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

Image The second installment of my series on movies that seem to have disappeared has been long in development.  I had a lot of movies I could have written about but none screamed “second” when discussing my Forgotten Films.  Eventually I had to decide, and I settled on discussing a film that I didn’t plan on writing about in the first place, but to me it truly screams “must-see.”  If ever you have agreed with a single thing I’ve ever said on this site, then I beg you all to go out and rent the little known Tom Stoppard film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

If you’ve never heard of this film, then it’s still at least possible that you’ve heard the names of the two title characters before. If so, then congratulations on being a theater nerd! Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two VERY minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Personally, I’m one of those people who love Shakespeare but hate Hamlet with a fiery passion. (There others like me out there…aren’t there?)  This is due to the fact that while in high school, in addition to reading this play, I had to watch EVERY SINGLE HAMLET FILM EVER (yes including the horrible version with Mel Gibson) so I vowed that if I never had to see anything connected with Hamlet ever it would be too soon.  Well I officially have to eat my words.

If you’re not one of the aforementioned theater dorks, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two friends of the protagonist, sent to find out information and unknowingly end up betraying him.  They are then killed, never to be heard from again.  Well this film describes everything leading up to that moment in the play, but with some incredibly hilarious subtle British humor.

The film starts off following Guildenstern (Tim Roth) and Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) on their way to Elsinore to see Hamlet.  Actually it takes them awhile to figure out that is their destination because they have no recollection of why their traveling.  In discovering a coin that always turns up heads Rosencrantz believes that for some reason “Time is out of joint.” 

After meeting a traveling acting troupe led by a character played by Richard Dreyfuss they make it to their destination and into the actual story of Hamlet.  The good thing about this film is it shows Hamlet from a completely different perspective, that of two characters that had very little to do in the play itself.  The two men come upon various moments from the play completely by accident, the scene where Hamlet kills Polonius is a moment where neither character is seen in the story but you find out they were hiding in the back the whole time and saw everything.

While the ending to the characters’ stories is known from the start, it is their journey that makes this movie so enjoyable.  On first glance the movie is really a lesser version of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, in that they take a classic tale and turn it on its ear.  Whereas much of the humor in the former was upfront with a bit left for you to ponder on, much of the jokes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead are subtle.  The actors have such quick exchanges of dialogue you really have to sit and ponder before you find the humor.

This type of movie might have fallen flat on its face if not for the talent involved in it and the actors’ ability to make the jokes funny.  Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are simply terrific; Roth is very much the straight man to Oldman’s bumbling idiot.  Since so much of the dialogue is subtle in its wittiness the actor’s reactions to things also cause a lot of laughs.  It’s also great to see Gary Oldman play such a sweet idiot (this was made way back in 1990 when Oldman was still playing amazing psychopaths).  He’s so hilarious because he’s the character that always takes 20 minutes to figure something out when everybody else has already moved on. 

I think the reason this movie might be difficult to grasp to a lot of audiences is the dry British humor, my mother watched this with me and didn’t enjoy it just because it’s dry in its approach.  She enjoyed a lot of the physical humor but hates Hamlet almost as much as me.  You have to be a fan of British comedy to enjoy this movie, and having a knowledge of Shakespeare doesn’t hurt either (it’s beyond great to have the characters so confused by the events that are happening that they forget which one is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern).

Unfortunately, I fear that most people will decide within the first few frames of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead whether or not they’ll like it, judged by the literary title and British accents.  However, anyone who makes that decision will be missing something truly extraordinary.