Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Shakespeare by way of Beckett. I’m hardly the first person to draw that comparison, no doubt, but Godot immediately came to mind anyway as soon as Gary Oldman started flipping that coin. Roger Ebert complained that the film failed because the material was never meant to be filmed; unlike Ebert, I’ve got no investment in the original play simply because I’d no familiarity with it, so I can only take the film by itself, and for what it is—i.e. a film of a play about a play—I suppose it does well enough. It’s an artificial construct, but it would be equally if not more so on the stage, I imagine. I wonder if its real problem is that the material is too tied to the period that produced it (i.e. the mid-60s) and the concerns of the “absurdist” theatre of the time to avoid seeming a bit dated. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such ultimate nobodies that neither of them is sure which of them is which; they observe rather than do (literally—an awful lot of the film seems to involve them watching other people do things), they’re at the mercy of elements outside their control, they don’t understand what it is they’re supposed to do (much like the other Hamlet personages in the film, who have a similar quality of apparent mechanism rather than individual personality to them). Ultimately they’re ciphers rather than people, and ultimately that’s where the thing kind of collapses for me; they’re not really important, they’re bit parts in their own story, and death comes to them just as it comes to us all, so why should we show them any particular interest or engagement? I’m sure that’s kind of the point, they’re nothing special, but for me at least there’s not a great deal to stop the film from finally just becoming a somewhat blank exercise in emptiness.


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