I respect Roger Ebert and his reviews. His pure love of cinema is something that really shows in his writing. Also, he can easily straddle the line between popular commentary and deeper analysis when it comes to viewing the latest feature. Yet, as with any reviewer, there are times when I disagree with him. Then there are times when I really disagree with him as on an occasion when I looked through his archived "zero star" reviews and came upon the following title.
The film "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is based on a play of the same name by Tom Stoppard, who also co-wrote "Shakespeare in Love". This story also involves Shakespeare, namely the two characters of the title (played by Tim Roth and Gary Oldman) who happen to play a minor role in Shakespeare's play "Hamlet". Like two characters being written on the page for the first time, we see them emerge out of nothing with no memory of their past and only a vague inkling of their purpose. They're not even sure which one of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. They are quickly met by a band of traveling actors who is lead by a man known simply as the Player (Richard Dreyfuss). Unlike our two main characters, the Player knows exactly who they all are and what is going on. He expedites our two characters into the play and acts as a mysterious guide to them as they try to find their way.
The play is a very existential work that plays with the character's reality. They soon realize something is amiss when they flip a coin 157 times and it comes down heads every time. When they arrive at the castle, they are drawn into scenes with the other characters. When they are not needed in a scene, they watch the action from afar and comment to each other about it. Then there are occasions when they leave the action entirely in order to spend some time analyzing their situation. With all respect to Samuel Beckett, It could have been called "Waiting for Hamlet".
The script is very clever and funny. It's full of the kind of verbal wordplay that resembles fencing by two skilled masters, and it often comes fast and furious. There is a scene where they come upon a tennis court and one asks the other if they want to play "Questions". As we soon discover, this is a game where two people conduct an entire conversation by only asking different questions (Whether it was inspired by this or not, the same game was adopted by the British and then American game show "Who's Line is it Anyway?"). Sometimes the dialogue is too fast and its all the audience can do to keep up, so be sure to keep your rewind button handy.
On one level, the film is enjoyable for its showcasing of two actors right before they became much larger stars in Hollywood. Oldman, though he made a big impression with "Sid and Nancy" four years before this, would make the more popular "JFK" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" in the years immediately following. Oldman has shown such an incredible knack at playing villains that he's been typecast for most of his career. Despite his talent for it, I yearn to see him do lighter roles. His role in this film gives audiences a glimpse of what he's capable of. For example, a running joke in the film is how he keeps "discovering" scientific principles, only for the demonstrations to fall apart when he tries to show his partner, are simple yet hilarious slapstick.
Tim Roth was confined to small British films until two years after this one when he was tapped by Quentin Tarantino to play the pivotal Mr. Orange in "Reservoir Dogs". He has since followed up on this with roles in films great ("Rob Roy") and not so great ("Planet of the Apes"). I've been a fan of his since I unknowingly rented his first film years ago, a hitman drama called "The Hit" with Terence Stamp and John Hurt. Maybe, since Oldman has gotten himself some mainstream attention as Sirius Black in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban", Roth can snatch up another Rowling role in a future installment. Perhaps we could even see the two of them on screen again, if but briefly. I, for one, would pay to see that chemistry again.
Surprisingly, all of the metaphysical stuff is not what soured Ebert on the film. Indeed, he thinks the script is brilliant. His gripe, rather, is that the translation of the play from stage to screen is an utter washout. I have never seen the stage play, so I cannot comment on this. However, I think I can see where he's coming from. There is a certain energy in a stage performance when all there is are the actors and the audience. Even if the actors are not speaking directly to the audience, there is still active communication there. In the film, that energy is zapped. Instead of a stage, we see two actor wander aimlessly through a gigantic and mostly empty castle. As Ebert observed in his review, this can make the minutes really drag in certain spots.
Still, I cannot agree with such a complete dismissal when, even in this filmed form, the script alone deserves a listen. I've tried in my reviews to point out specific audiences that certainly films should be viewed by. Any fan of Shakespeare, and anyone who knows "Hamlet" pretty well, should seek out this film. All others, well, may want to check out "Shakespeare in Love" for some Stoppard that is more accessible and better paced.
Seven out of Ten