"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is dead.
Once an audacious bit of undergraduate trickery tarted up as serious drama, the Tom Stoppard play has been not so much filmed as stuffed. Now and then it will stir to a moment of power but far more commonly it is, to quote Hamlet, nothing but "words, words, words."
Perhaps Stoppard himself wasn't quite the man to direct the movie: After all, the play is his first child, and it liberated him from a dreary penance as drama critic to a swanky new life of celebrity playwright and millionaire screenwriter. He could hardly expected to see through its fraudulence -- and he hasn't.
The conceit is brilliant but shallow, a clever way to play classical sensibility against the modernist one. The play is actually set in and around Shakespeare's "Hamlet," but it follows not the tragic figures of the Prince, the King and the Queen, but two foppish minor enigmas, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who appear briefly as ex-friends of Hamlet's dragooned into service as spies against him; they pay for their treachery with an off-stage execution. Their fates are announced ironically, almost as a joke; the death of supernumeraries is meaningless against the splendor of the carnage onstage.
Stoppard's stroke of genius was to imagine these two as soul brothers to Vladimir and Estragon of "Waiting for Godot." They're waiting for Hamlet, called up from nothingness by a "voice" (Shakespeare's) and set loose to wander around Elsinore Castle, wondering if the tumultuous events will turn out to be a bad career move for them.
They question their lives, their purposes and their destinies. In a vivid way they echo the central thematic concern of the larger drama: To be? Or not to be? For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as much as Hamlet or you or I, that is the question. And they hang around the "Players," who seem to have a magic sense of the future (they've read the play, obviously), and at one point watch as the players mime the events to come, including their own deaths -- the movie's most powerful moment.
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman are spectacular, as is Richard Dreyfuss as the player-king. The production, also, is sumptuous and glossy, making much of the dark medieval colors and Elizabethan pageantry.
However, the cast of the Shakespearian frame drama isn't impressive, particularly Iain Glen as the prince himself, played in a pitch of shrill hysterics. But the real enemy of Stoppard the director is Stoppard the playwright. He's a wonderful writer but I sometimes think the page is the proper forum for his works, where the reader may produce them in the mind, sighing at the wit-rich environment. When mounted on a stage or before a camera, their sheer damned brilliance slowly but surely leaches the life from them. Words, words, words. Talk, talk, talk.
Put another way, this play's not the thing with which to give the audience a sting.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Richard Dreyfuss.
Directed by Tom Stoppard.
Distributed by Warner Bros.