A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 224 – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead – October 10th, 2010

After last night’s amazing marathon Hamlet, we discussed what to watch today. We’ve got another version of the play in our collection, and we’ve got the Reduced Shakespeare performance, and we’ve got this. We decided on this because well, we thought it would be fun. Connected to Hamlet but not Hamlet as traditionally known. Really, it’s got a rather generous helping of Hamlet in it. Just told from an odd point of view, and through the eyes of characters who never quite seem to know what’s going on. I’m a sucker for odd point of view stuff. And I love seeing stories told through different eyes.

I admit, I also have a personal connection to this play. When I was in high school I was in a production of it. It was my freshman year and the audition involved dying. We were given a script and some lines to read, then some lines to read with someone else, and then we had to die. On the spot. I ended up as one of the players, which you might think is odd, since the joke with Alfred is that there aren’t any women in the troupe. But with my hair pulled back and a shapeless tunic on who really cared, right? I didn’t have any lines, but I had a lot of stage time. It was an odd choice for the freshman class play, really. We all knew it once we’d had a chance to read the script. I remember there being a bit of resentment among the students who’d been cast as the characters from Hamlet, because when you see your name next to “Ophelia” or “Claudius” you think you’re going to get more than a handful of minutes on stage. And then no. Read throughs were often somewhat pointless, with all of us sitting around waiting to be told to cross out a line that was being cut while the three major roles read on and on and on. A few of us scratched out “acts” in the subtitle on our scripts and changed them so they read “A play in three parts” but really, I did enjoy the experience. After all, I met Andy and the Audio Visual crew (without whom I don’t think I’d have made it through school, let alone have the husband I have) for the first time at the cast party.

That wasn’t all just to blather on about myself, I swear. It’s just that it was my first exposure to this play and while watching tonight I found myself remembering the precise deliveries not of Tim Roth or Gary Oldman or Richard Dreyfuss, but of my classmates. I could remember the cues and props and stage directions. I remember barrels with false bottoms and I remember my costume and I remember it being so much fun, even if I didn’t entirely grasp it at the time. Which was probably because I didn’t know Hamlet yet. Sure, I knew what Hamlet was, but I hadn’t read it or seen any productions of it. And while you probably could watch this movie without ever having watched Hamlet, you’d probably be not quite lost, but indifferent (times being what they are). Without knowledge of Hamlet, this is just a couple of guys wandering around a decrepit castle, seeming to get in the middle of other peoples’ business without knowing what said business involves, or what it means, or even whether they should care. There’s the Player, but he’s even more enigmatic than the cast of Hamlet, who rush in and give us tidbits of lines only to leave again when their own stage directions tell them to without showing us the rest of their scenes. And then there are references to the play peppered throughout Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s conversations, but without knowing them it’s all a bit vague.

The vagueness is really intentional. After all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t even remember which one of them is which some of the time – likely spurred by Claudius mixing them up in the original play – so it’s to be expected that the might be a bit confused. What is their purpose, after all? Why are they there? What are they supposed to do? Something with Hamlet! But they do so little really. And in this production they spend much of their time verbally sparring with each other, playing games like Questions and trying to practice what they’ll say to Hamlet when they see him. They flip coins and observe their surroundings, but in very specific and focused ways. Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz spends a lot of time noticing things like the water level in his tub rising and falling as he moves up and down, though the things he notices end up having no bearing on the matters at hand. It’s an excellent performance from Oldman. Rosencrantz could be argued to be a little slower on the uptake than Guildenstern is, but he’s also very curious and almost scientific.

As an aside, I do find it amusing that last night’s Rosencrantz was played by Timothy Spall and tonight’s is Gary Oldman, and both played closely associated characters in the Harry Potter movies. A fun little connection, even if it means absolutely nothing.

To be honest, the movie is full of little things that could mean something but probably mean nothing. It’s kind of how I think of the whole thing. Sure, if one spent a lot of time and all, one could draw a lot of meaning from the back and forth between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mix this with an in-depth reading of Hamlet and toss in some dramatic and literary theory and you’ve got yourself a paper or two or three. But I don’t watch it to analyze it and try to make sense of it. Really, if I tried to make sense of it all I think I’d ruin it for myself. I don’t want to go ascribing meaning to every little thing the characters do. They do it because they have to do it. It’s not like the play’s trying to give the two leads a happy ending. They die at the end of Hamlet, so they die at the end here too. And in between their introduction and their deaths they’re woven into this tragic story of blood and love and rhetoric without knowing their eventual fates until it’s too late. They can’t change Hamlet. They’re two of the innocent lives lost thanks to Claudius and Hamlet being dicks and not quite caring who gets hurt so long as they get what they want. That they never quite catch onto what’s happening is essential when you get down to it. If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have died.

It’s not a movie to watch if you want a thoroughly coherent storyline, or plain talk laid out in easy to understand phrasing. It’s not a movie with a happy ending – being based on Hamlet, would you expect it to? But it does have funny moments. Dreyfuss as the Player really does a great job with his role, providing laughs and puzzles and snarky opinions. And then there’s Oldman as Rosencrantz, whose every facial expression is a joy to watch, and Tim Roth as Guildenstern, who often grows frustrated with his friend, but is determined to keep him up to speed regardless. The three of them are fantastic. What little we see of the main cast of Hamlet is fine as well, but they’re not the point here. They’re the backdrop. The point is a coin always coming up heads when tossed, and the inevitability of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

October 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

October 10, 2010

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

“Words, words, words!”

I wanted to be sure to watch this movie with our viewing of Hamlet fresh in my mind. Because this entire play takes place in and around the play of Hamlet. It’s Hamlet from a slightly different perspective. Or at least that is its jumping off point. In reality it uses the events of Hamlet to extemporise upon the nature of drama in general, the unchanging fate of the characters caught up in the play, and questions of mortality. My wife once performed in a production of this play (in a minor role) and I remember watching it many times before I ever saw this movie version of it. As such my thoughts on watching this often wandered to comparing the production Amanda was in with this version.

More than anything what strikes me when I watch this is the wit of the writing. Tom Stoppard has created something wonderful here. It’s not just the clever way that the action of the play weaves itself in and out of the action of Hamlet, exploring the adventures of two minor characters caught up in the tragedy, but the very word-play itself that is in large part what this piece is all about. At one point Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in a game of “questions” wherein they must reply to every question with another question. It is scored like a game of tennis and involves a very rapid patter between the two characters. The scene doesn’t really accomplish anything and doesn’t advance the plot in any way (although they do refer back to it after their first meeting with Hamlet and the “What a piece of work is a man” speech”) but it’s filled with cool and clever writing. Which pretty much sums up the whole play.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters only, but self-aware characters. As the action begins they have no recollection of who they are or where they come from. They are so interchangeable in the eyes of everybody else that even they are not sure which is Rosengrantz and which Guildenstern. As they play proceeds they must figure out for themselves what is going on based only on the limited interactions they have with other characters in the play. They know they have been sent for. They are commanded by the king to discover what is the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy. But they don’t really know who they are or how to accomplish their task.

Along the way they meet the players and their chief who understands much about playing a character in general and about just what is going on in Hamlet specifically. The player is well aware that he is in a play and just where the action is headed. At one point the players put on a pantomime version of Hamlet in its entirety, including the ignoble offstage deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the pair somehow miss what’s being told to them.

There are a ton of really quick and difficult bits of dialog. Like the game of questions I mentioned earlier. Like the “I don’t get it” bit on the boat which is a kind of Abbot and Costello style joke about which of them has the letter for the English king. As such I think it had more impact live on stage than it does captured on film like this, but the film has a lot to offer as well.

Stoppard has the luxury here of directing the movie adaptation of his own play, so he’s able to play with the material quite a bit. He’s written the two leads with significantly different personalities with one being the more rational, aware and inquisitive one while the other is more instinctual and less burdened by thought. One of the fun things in the movie version is that the slightly dim one of the pair (call him Rosencrantz just for convenience sake) is throughout the movie making clever scientific observations and inventing things that are not part of the time period wherein the film is set. It’s a purely visual thing so it’s not part of the script, but it’s fun to watch. The other stand-out part of the play is the way that the players perform all their bits. They use a great deal of mime, pantomime and such which is beautiful, rich, and great fun to watch. Stand out bits for me are the puppet show they do within the play within a play, the ocean voyage which uses no props but has the actors themselves portray the ocean and ship, and the fantastic pantomime sword battle. There’s a real understanding and reverence for the power of acting which makes sense since the whole play is so much about what goes through the heads of characters when they are not on stage being performed by actors.

It’s a confusing concept, but makes sense in the world of the movie. Mostly thanks to the great performances of the real life actors involved. In the three leads we have the ever wonderful Gary Oldman as the slightly dim (but in the movie secretly brilliant) Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern (who is tasked with being the one of the pair that tries to understand what is going on and therefore is often in the lead, and Richard Dreyfuss as the omniscient Player who is the only person who truly understands what’s going on. All three of them are wonderful to watch and handle Stoppard’s difficult dialog as if it came naturally to them.

In addition to all this there is a very serious and well performed version of Hamlet going on around them. After just having watched the complete four hour Branagh version yesterday it was fun to see a different interpretation of the same work. Even though the play of Hamlet is scenery and sort of background for this play the version through which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern drift looks like quite a good one. Aside from the dialog of the Player and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves all the rest of the dialog in the movie comes directly from the Shakespeare, so all the other actors are effectively performing Shakespeare in and around the rest of this play. It’s very cool to watch.

I also love the production design. Tom Stoppard gives the whole production a kind of other-worldly feel. The location where they shot is a drafty, decrepit castle, which fits the mood perfectly. Stoppard uses mist, steam, smoke and the vapor of the actor’s breath to make the whole thing seem slightly ghostly. Oh, and the movie is bookended by a Pink Floyd tune from Echoes which has always been one of their most haunting and strange albums.

If you enjoy a play that takes a great deal of joy in its own cleverness (full of sound and fury, signifying nothing) and you enjoy great acting and a strange haunted feel, then this is the movie for you. It is a tragedy in that its poor characters are doomed to play out an inevitable story that was written in full before they ever appeared on the screen, but it’s still a joy to watch.

October 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment