Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

*. The oddest factoid I turned up when doing a bit of research into this title, which I first saw during its original release run, is that it received a “zero stars” review from Roger Ebert.
*. Huh? I could understand not liking Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, but it’s still a long, long way from Freddy Got Fingered and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. I mean, Roger even gave Battlefield Earth half a star. Sure, he gave Walker the no-star treatment too, but what I mean is that he wasn’t in the habit of nuking decent flicks.
*. I’m beginning with Ebert’s surprising rating because of the way his review worries over the question of “What went wrong?” The answer isn’t simple. He likes the play and has nothing against its adaptation here and the direction by Tom Stoppard. He likes the cast. Finally he settles on the idea that it was a bad idea from the start: “I think the problem is that this material was never meant to be a film, and can hardly work as a film.”
*. I can see where he’s coming from, but I don’t think this cuts it. I don’t think this is an entirely successful adaptation of the play, and it may be that it was an impossible job putting it on film, but I think it’s easier than this to identify where it goes wrong. It’s too slow on its feet, especially given the nature of the dialogue, and the visual gags that Stoppard introduces, if they even rise to the level of gags, are pretty dull. Rosencrantz watching the paper boat rise and fall with the water level in his bath? What was the point of that?

*. I should jump in here and say I don’t hate this movie. In fact, I think it’s pretty good. It has a lovely, frosted look that perfectly walks the line between naturalism and the theatrical. The three leads are all excellent, Richard Dreyfuss surprisingly so. He strikes just the right impish note. The editing is a bit rough in places but the photography is first rate. And the play is still the play.
*. It’s a play that was almost twenty-five years old at the time. I wonder how Stoppard felt about going back to the work that was his breakout hit. I suspect he wasn’t very sentimental about it. On taking on the role of director (to date it’s the only movie he’s helmed), he remarked that “It just seemed that I’d be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect.”
*. Usually I’d consider that a good thing, but as I hinted at in what I said about the pacing I think this is a production that is, in the end, too solemn. It needed a lighter touch. Stoppard’s dialogue, for example, has the effect of making you feel like you’re always a step behind. I think this is intentional. But here it’s too easy to keep up.

*. A large part of the way the play works is by exploiting the friction between the almost slapstick nature of the comedy and the musings on death and the meaning and purpose of life. I’m not sure it’s all that profound in the end, basically just using the metaphor of the stage to show how we find ourselves thrust into various roles in life that we’re forced to go along with, losing ourselves in the process, and that some people just aren’t very important in the grand scheme of things, supporting actors in a greater drama. Still, it makes you think about where the boundaries of the world’s stage lie.
*. I can’t think of a better example of this than the game of Questions that plays out like a tennis match. Some reviewers objected to this being too obvious, but the thing is I always remembered this scene as having them actually playing tennis while they volley questions back and forth. I was, I think, confusing the scene with one from another movie, but still for nearly thirty years I had a memory of an imaginary game of tennis that I never actually saw. There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.

15 thoughts on “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

  1. fragglerocking

    I’ve seen this as a play back when I was doing English Lit A level, but not the movie, and that was so long ago I can’t remember much about it. Sometimes I wonder what the point of me at school was!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s natural to forget most of what we read. Only odds and ends stick around. I thought I remembered the tennis scene from this one but I even had that wrong.


    I can’t love this film the way I love Stoppard’s play; it’s as good as The Invention of Love. But the film feels flatter; it probably needed updating to a film of Hamlet rather than a play….met Stoppard in Book Soup once.

  3. Bookstooge

    I’ve heard the name of the play, have no idea what’s it even about and so a movie would probably be the only way I’d ever see it. I wonder how many other people are in the same boat?

    1. Alex Good

      Probably a lot. I’ve seen it on stage and read it, but I imagine for most the movie is the only option. And it’s not a bad movie, but doesn’t really capture the flavour of it.

  4. Lashaan Balasingam @ Roars and Echoes

    I’ve never heard of this before but you do a great job of emphasizing the good stuff, especially in the execution. I am intrigued by the underlying “philosophical” message but, as you mentioned, I can see how it might seem superficial in the end in this case. Thanks for sharing, Alex. I hope you’re better since whatever was keeping you busy this past month.


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