Best on Netflix Watch Instantly: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (1990)
By Kevin Cook
In addition to being one of the most smartly written films of all time, this also acts as one of my social litmus tests. If someone watched and liked this movie, I typically will like and enjoy that person, plus it works the other way, too.
If the names sound familiar, it’s because they’re from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The film is the only movie directed by Tom Stoppard, the revered playwright Time Magazine in 2008 voted 76th on its list of the 100 Most Influential People and whose voice and style were so distinctive style that the Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance lists a term, “Stoppardian,” meaning a work that addresses philosophical concepts and themes with wit and comedy, in his honor.
The film is an adaptation of Stoppard’s seminal play of the same name and features Tim Roth and Gary Oldman as the titular characters. The chemistry and dynamic between the two leads is absolutely delightful, and my appreciation for it has only improved with repeated viewings.
Stoppard’s narrative conceit is to center the plot on the two least important characters in Hamlet, and while an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespeare or a deep appreciation for his work isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the film, a passing knowledge of the events of the play is helpful. The other Hamlet characters do appear, often suddenly and with great fanfare and commotion bursting into a quiet scene between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Some of the plot points from Shakespeare’s play are acted out in front of them as well, and their subsequent speculations about what is going on in Denmark are hilarious.
Richard Dreyfuss plays The Lead Player, the leader of the acting troupe Hamlet eventually uses to provoke his uncle Claudius into revealing his treachery, who first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the wilderness. The Lead Player acts as a sort of anchor to the absurdity and surrealism of the narrative and gives context and meaning to the events while also being in his own right amusing and a joy to watch. Dreyfuss was perfectly cast, and this is easily the best performance he has given in his career.
The play and film were enormously influential, and that is as much of a good reason to watch since the movie is funny and intelligently crafted. This is art in a way that film often isn’t and is definitely worth watching multiple times.