Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead fills a unique spot: a re-interpretive genre.  Like the seminal Shakespeare in Love, it is the recasting of an old tale in a new, and sometimes innovative, light.  In the case of this film, it is the story of Hamlet (to a degree) told through the eyes of two petty characters from the original story: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The film is devilishly clever and it clearly took a lot of thought to craft this unique angle on the story.  Though it is only loosely based on Shakespeare’s original story, it still maintains continuity with Hamlet’s roots.  It doesn’t, however, reach the masterful pinnacle for which it aspires and falls flat in many areas: The acting isn’t confident enough, the story is fraught with empty stretches, and the production is cold and bleak.  This is a commendable effort, but it doesn’t work like it should.
Rosencrantz is played by Gary Oldman and Guildenstern is played by Tim Roth, or it could be the other way around.  The two characters are the epitome of bumbling nobodies, too clueless and ambivalent to the world around them to even keep their names straight.  Either that, or they suffer from a serious case of retrograde amnesia.  And so the film starts, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wandering the thick forest with no recollection of where they came.  When they happen upon a merry band of theater players headed by Richard Dreyfuss (who phones in an uninspired performance), they tag along to the royal court.  Here, they are summoned to cheer up the depressed Hamlet (Iain Glen).  Or so they think.
The true matter is that they are pawns in a much greater scheme, one that involves the death of Lord Hamlet himself.  As simple as this plot seems, it isn’t that easy to follow.  This is partly due to writer/director Tom Stoppard’s use of the Bard’s language. It doesn’t contain the same eloquence and beauty of Shakespeare, and at times becomes so ambiguous it’s difficult to interpret. Additionally, the long stretches of non-relevant dialogue miss their mark too often.  When the duo aren’t being engaged by others (which is quite often), they spend their time playing word games and trickery.  These scenes, while infused with witty dialogue and a fast pace, are numerous.  As a result, my attention began to wither as well as my interest in the proceedings.  Additionally, the performances aren’t as respectable as they should be considering the talent at hand.
Stoppard, who developed the film from his own play, truly gives it his all and deserves respect on those grounds alone.  It is an interesting tale, but one that is better suited for the theater.  The long expanses of dialogue don’t work as well here because the spotty editing and empty cinematography dampen the pacing.  As a result, the film treads heavily in boring territory.  I adore Shakespeare and I admire creative takes on an old story, so this should have been a home run.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are eclectic enough to warrant a viewing, but aren’t intelligent enough to propagate a good narrative.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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