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Image Entertainment presents
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1991)

"We only know what we're told, and for all we know it isn't even true."
- Guildenstern (Tim Roth)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: March 22, 2005

Stars: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss
Other Stars: Iain Glen, Ian Richardson, Donald Sumpter, Joanna Miles, Joanna Roth, John Burgess
Director: Tom Stoppard

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: PG for (brief nudity, sexual references)
Run Time: 01h:57m:29s
Release Date: March 22, 2005
UPC: 014381256222
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+BB+ A-

DVD Review

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," wrote the Bard. This notion is taken to its logical conclusions in Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, focusing on two minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the process of presenting a wildly funny comedy, Stoppard also raises existential questions with a broader application to humanity. Some passing familiarity with the original is necessary for a decent appreciation of much of the humor, with proportional rewards for closer knowledge of the tragedy.

Hapless courtiers Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) are traveling to Elsinore, for reasons they don't quite understand, pausing along the way to flip coins with surprisingly non-random results and play word games. Coming across a troupe of actors led by The Player (Richard Dreyfuss), they suddenly find themselves at the castle, even more clueless than before, but they are warned by King Claudius (Donald Sumpter) that their friend Hamlet (Iain Glen) has gone mad. Before long, the actors catch up with the pair and glimpses of Shakespeare's play intertwine with the buffoonery of the title characters as they try to make sense of their existence on the margins of something they imperfectly sense is bigger than they understand.

Stoppard nicely uses comedy based on wordplay, irony, and straightforward slapstick to take one into an absurd world that has uncomfortable parallels with our own imperfect understanding. The title characters are a metaphor for humanity, not understanding what's happening or motivating events, carried along without self-awareness. As befits the straight man, Guildenstern's not nearly as smart as he thinks, as savant Rosencrantz creates invention after invention in his idiocy, but Guildenstern rejects them all. Their sense of identity is also impaired, since they themselves have trouble remembering which of them is which. On occasion they have flashes of clarity, but when they're not interacting with Hamlet's story they often feel like they're just marking time with their inane conversations, as if they are actors simply waiting for their entrances, so they can deliver their lines and then wait back in the wings until the next entrance should come. Eventually, as the title hints, they wind up dead for reasons they don't begin to comprehend, and they dimly attempt to reconstruct exactly where things went wrong, but are quite unable to do so before the end finally comes.

The humor is propelled by the inspired casting of the three leads. Oldman delivers the slightly-more-obtuse Rosencrantz with a deft touch for comedy, blankly delivering very funny lines, doubling the humor inherent in them. Tim Roth, as the slightly smarter Guildenstern, plays the Oliver Hardy/Bud Abbott role to the hilt, though without quite as much slow burn as one might expect from the models. Richard Dreyfuss, often right at the edge of hammery in other films, is permitted to let all the stops loose with his over-the-top portrayal of the archetypal Player, and he's clearly having so much fun one can hardly resist. Writer Stoppard also served as director (his only stint in the chair thus far), and he does a fine job in bringing his play to the screen. The middle gets a little slow when it starts to emphasize the theatrical troupe rather than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, but that's also a structural problem of Shakespeare's original, so he's certainly in good company.

The coin-flipping (or spinning, as it's described in the film itself) highlights the conflict of the random and the intentional that combine to drive the story of these incidental characters to their dooms. But there's nothing random about Stoppard's design or his careful dialogue. The comparisons to Beckett, especially to the clueless characters Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot are inescapable, but there's an originality at work here that knows no forbears. Few plays register as instant classics, but this certainly is one of them, and as a cinematic adaptation it's quite satisfactory indeed.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture generally looks quite fine, although some shots exhibit heavy graininess that on occasion gets a little sparkly. Colors and shadow detail are very lifelike, with little edge enhancement or other artifacting. Black levels are strong.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both DD and DTS 5.1 tracks are included, with the DTS version getting the clear nod due to some surprising hiss and crackle on the DD t5rack. The DTS version is clear and quite vivid, and Stanley Myers' score has nice immediacy. The 2.0 track is acceptable, and the DD 5.1 track is recorded at somewhat louder levels than the other two.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
4 Documentaries
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:07m:47s

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: There's an entire second disc devoted to lengthy interview sessions with the three principal actors and Stoppard. The director and Oldman each talk for nearly an hour, while Dreyfuss goes 45 minutes and Roth somehow only manages half an hour. There's a ton of background information about their careers, the genesis of the play and the film and other relevant matters. The interviewer has a tendency to ask all the subjects the same questions (including questions raised in the play itself), which seems a little lazy but the different responses are intriguing. The second disc is rounded out by a gallery of ten color stills. Chaptering is a little thin, and there are no subtitles or closed captions.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Announced years ago but cancelled without explanation, this overstuffed special edition will make fans of the film very happy indeed.


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