Film Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Gary Oldman Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

This film does a good job of proving that some great stage plays are on the stage for a reason.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern PosterShould I see it?
If it is your kind of thing, yes.

Director/Writer: Tom Stoppard

Starring: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss and Iain Glen

Rated PG for nudity

Be warned: I have an affection for this film that clouds my opinion.  It was released when I was discovering the original play as a young theater student and writer.  In other words, I have a personal history with the play and film and it clouds my judgment.  I will do my best to keep my opinion level.

Tom Stoppard’s film adaptation of his classic stage play is a mixed affair.  The genuine humor and clever dialog are fun and the staging is impressive.  In turn, the pacing is consistently off and leads to an offputting, distant tone.

One of the biggest drawbacks for the audience is if you are not familiar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The uninitiated won’t be completely lost, but they may not get many of the references.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead HangngRosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Hamlet.  They are childhood friends of the prince and are sent with Hamlet to England.  The duo is charged to deliver a sealed note they have been directed to give to the King upon their arrival.  The note demands the King executes Hamlet upon opening.  During the trip, Hamlet switches the note with one that tells the King to kill the pair instead.  For over four hundred years, these hapless souls have been getting killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stoppard’s version of the story places these minor characters in the spotlight and shoves Hamlet to the bottom of the cast list.  In the film, the pair are symbols of existential doom who ponder on the meaning of life, the order of the universe and the use of art.  After that last sentence, it should go without saying, this is a rather talky film.

The heart of the film are the leads Tim Roth (Guildenstern) and Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz). The pair shares a welcoming chemistry and performs their classic double act* perfectly. Guildenstern is a thoughtful, serious man given to philosophical ponderings. Rosencrantz is a dim-eyed buffoon who has a talent for accidentally stumbling across nearly every major discovery in physics. As they move through their predetermined roles as sacrificial lambs, the pair wanders the grounds of Elsinore, uninvolved witnesses in their own play. Against them, Richard Dreyfuss, in what I think is his best performance, plays the snarling devilish Player. He fronts the troupe of masquers who perform The Murder of Gonzago, the ‘metaplay’ presented within Hamlet. When these actors play off one another, the film hits its highest marks. The actors are clearly reveling in the rich dialog and the absurd humor.

Recommending this isn’t as clear cut as most films. Again, it is best if you have a running understanding of the plot and characters of Hamlet. If you don’t, the humor will land and most will enjoy those moments. The humor is spread out however and you may be left wondering what the heck is going on. Keep this in mind before you decide.


There is a moment of a transvestite’s naked butt. It is technically unneeded, but thematically, it goes to the confusion of reality and the duality of human expression against reality which is central to the philosophy to the film.


This is a deeply existential story. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are perpetually doomed and can do nothing to avoid their fate. They exist as pawns in a greater man’s story. They are meaningless in their lives and in their deaths other than how they can serve the larger narrative. Yet without their sacrifice, the story they inhabit cannot complete. In this sense, they are as important as Hamlet himself. It is this contradiction that fuels the production.

These characters exist in an apparent godless universe. They assume they have free agency while living under fate’s Sword of Damocles the whole time. No matter what road they choose, they meet the same doom. As fate lurks, they attempt to impose personal meanings on events they ultimately cannot control. Victims of fate are controlled by their universe, and free actors are incapable of controlling their universe. Both lose. This is incomprehensible existence at the heart of the story.

Of course, being a Christian solves this problem because you are a free agent, yet live under the guidance of the Lord. But I wouldn’t want to get all Jesus Freak on you, now would I?

Stoppard plays with the existential through the blurring of art and reality. The villain of the story is the Player, the leader of the acting troupe who Hamlet employs to condemn his mother and uncle. The Murder of Gonzago, their play-in-a-play, serves to confuse which reality we and the characters are experiencing. As they perform, they show the characters of Hamlet a representation of their own story. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they are literally shown themselves being hung on stage. Following, what should be a horrifying warning, Guildenstern corners the Player and denies that he is able to accurately portray death. Yet, he has shown Guildenstern his own impending death in detail. Man cannot understand his world. He can only make up digestible replications to create the illusion of understanding his reality.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

* – A ‘Double Act’ is a vaudevillian device where two opposing but connected characters play off one another for comedic effect. There is the ‘Straight Man’ or ‘Feed’, a serious or at least reasonable man paired with the ‘Banana Man’ or ‘Funny Man’ who is stupid, weak and/or absurd. Famous double acts include Abbott and Costello, Bugs and Elmer Fudd, Laurel and Hardy, Dean and Lewis and The Blues Brothers.

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