One of the most common traps reviewers face while reviewing highly metaphysical films is the temptation to write off any artistic errors or inconsistencies as deliberate creative decisions. It’s not that a film is paced poorly: it’s “an ironic commentary on the audience’s dependence on narrative linearity and causality.” It’s not that a film is filled with bad performances: it’s “a Brechtian technique designed to remind audiences that we are watching actors go about their roles as performers.” So with a movie like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), an adaption of Stoppard’s own theatrical masterpiece, trying to decipher directorial intent can be tricky.
We know by its source material that it’s supposed to be an absurdist interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the worm’s-eye view of two ancillary characters: the eponymous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the Danish prince’s best friends who die off-stage near the end. We can tell from comparison with the original play that Stoppard inserted several additional scenes of comedy: the aloof Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) manages to inadvertently invent the hamburger and discover Newtonian physics just by puttering around Elsinore Castle and its environs. Meanwhile Stoppard manages to play with time and space in ways impossible for the stage to replicate. One of the most notable is an early scene where the duo leave a massive ballroom through one door only to discover that they have re-entered the same ballroom from the other side.
But the film is a failure. There are long, meandering scenes where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk around, look at nothing in particular, and generally act detached (at one point Rosencrantz literally has to resort to making barnyard noises to occupy his attention). The film seems to lose focus and purpose as it indulges in tired bon mots and rhetorical exchanges. Ah, but now we get to my original statement: was this all intentional? Was the unfocused pacing intentional; some kind of modernist commentary on how when two characters become disassociated from their story they somehow lose all direction and interest? That one cannot expect a flowing, attention-grabbing narrative from a film that questions the purpose of narrative itself?
I say no. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is simply not very good. Allow me to explain: my copy of the film is the 25th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition by RLJ Entertainment. One of the special features is a new interview with Stoppard about the film. Only a few minutes into the interview you can tell that the man a) had no idea what he was doing while making the film, and b) didn’t even really want to make it a movie in the first place. He mentions how cinematographer Peter Biziou had to do the heavy lifting of making the film look like a film because he was oblivious to the whole process. He recounts how Biziou came to him one day in exasperation and asked, “Do you want your film to look like Lassie Come Home or Bergman?!” His response: “I don’t know.” When asked if he would do anything different if he made the film now, he answered: “Make it shorter.” And finally, he mentions the great coup of how the film beat Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) for the Golden Lion at the 47th Venice Film Festival. How did it win? Because Gore Vidal, the head of the jury, forced them to give it to the film as some sort of protest against the “devaluation of the English language” in modern society. He goes on to note that the award afterparty with the press was especially chilly.
So here we have a movie which few people initially liked, only became popular because of one man’s intellectual snobbery, and was the work of a creatively absent first (and only) time filmmaker. So I say, once and for all, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a boring, unfocused movie not because of some grand artistic design but because it is boring and unfocused.