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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Image // PG // January 12, 2016
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ian Jane | posted December 25, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Written and directed by Tom Stoppard and based on his stage play of the same name, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead takes two of Shakespeare's most minor of characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were bit part players in The Bard's classic Hamlet) and puts them front and center in their own take on some familiar events. It is, basically, the story of Hamlet from their point of view.

In a nutshell, the King Of Denmark has summoned Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) to Elsinore Castle and of course, they oblige. The meet various oddball characters on their travels and, upon their arrival, figure out that it's going to be up to them to try and sort out just exactly what it is that's eating away at Prince Hamlet (Iain Glen). As the events of Shakespeare's play begin to unfold at the castle, they become involved, or not involved, to varying degrees of participation but are, for the most part, outside the scenes of the play. This allows them to ponder just what is going on and why and to try to sort out fiction from reality and, of course, wonder just what it is that life is all about. The core events of Hamlet always seem just out of reach for the two men, and then that pesky theater troupe, with the Lead Player (Richard Dreyfuss) up front, arrive on the scene.

It's a play within a play within a play, if you look at it that way (we're all top billed in our own stories, right), and most of the time it's pretty funny. The film isn't perfect, mind you, because there are some definite and obvious pacing issues and Stoppard's direction isn't always the liveliest, but more often than not it works quite well. Set dressings and locations are minimal enough so that they don't distract from the main draws here, they being the acting and the dialogue. On this level the movie is top notch. There's wit aplenty throughout the movie, with the fairly dry deliveries from Roth and Oldman doing a fine job of creating the characters properly without overshadowing the script. Both of these men are capable of acting circles around many of their contemporaries and have occasionally been known to really go over the top. That's not needed here and so neither of them takes their respective character in that direction. Things are properly understated and it works.

Dreyfuss is also very good here, good enough, in fact, that even those who typically don't care for Richard Dreyfuss should be able to appreciate what he brings to the film. As the lead player, he's effective in tying what our titular ‘heroes' experience into the events that Shakespeare wrote to be Hamlet and he does it well. Iain Glen tends to steal a few moments as Hamlet and Ian Richardson as Polonius, Joanna Miles as Gertrude and Donald Sumpter as King Claudius are all excellent here as well. But as this movie is about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern more than it is about Hamlet and company, it's Roth, Oldman and Dreyfuss that do the bulk of the heavy lifting in front of the camera.

This being a tragicomedy of sorts and the title of the film being quite literally Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, it won't surprise anyone to learn what inevitably happens to the leads. Before we get to that point, however, we're treated to some fairly marvelous discussions as to the meaning of life, the finer points of existence, and in a recurring gag involved Goldman's flipping of a coin that may or may not be one-sided, whether or not reality actually works. It's fairly high concept in that regard but not taken to the point where it feels alienating. It does sometimes feel very stagey, and for good reason given its origins, but more often than not this is very funny stuff. It's not flashy, there isn't much action and it's almost entirely dialogue driven but the sardonic wit of the material jives so perfectly with the two leads' acting styles in this picture that you can't help but get a kick out of it.

The Blu-ray:


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead arrives on Blu-ray from Image, offered up in a 1.85.1 widescreen transfer in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Presented on a 50GB disc, things look pretty good here. The movie has a sort of gritty look to it sometimes but this translates to high definition nicely and there is substantially better color reproduction and considerably more detail present here than was ever obvious on the DVD release even if it never hits reference quality levels. Compression artifacts don't really ever factor into things here save for one or two darker scenes where you might briefly spot them, and the picture is quite clean, showing no real print damage outside of some occasional (and small) white specks now and then. Skin tones look good, black levels are pretty decent and there's a fair amount of depth to the image. Noise reduction and edge enhancement don't appear to factor into the picture at all, and film grain is present (and natural looking) but never overpowering.


The English language DTS-HD 2.0 track on the disc also sounds good. Dialogue is clean, nicely balanced and perfectly easy to follow. The levels are fine here and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion. The score has good range and presence and things shape up just fine here in terms of the disc's audio quality. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.


New to this disc is a 25th Anniversary Interview With Tom Stoppardthat runs just a hair under fifty-six minutes in length. This is basically an interview Stoppard did with Michael Brandman at The Library at The Savile Club in London on September 29th in 2015. This is a pretty interesting look back at what went into the movie, adapting the play to the silver screen, different drafts of the play, the history of the characters and quite a bit more. They share some amusing stories here about the project, some thoughts on dealing with actors and the literal craft of acting as an art form, the writing process and quite a bit more.

Carried over from past releases are interviews with Stoppard (59:09), Gary Oldman (58:27), Tim Roth and (32:56) Richard Dreyfuss (45:30). Those who have seen these before (they were included on the past domestic DVD release) will already know that these are quite in-depth and cover a lot of ground. Stoppard's interview, not surprisingly, covers a lot of the same ground as the new interview but there are some interesting segues here unique to this particular conversation. The real treat, however, is getting to hear from the three male leads discussing their experiences making the film, their thoughts on their characters and their thoughts on the film itself. Animated menus and chapter selection are included.

Final Thoughts:

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead has some pacing issues but it is frequently really, really funny and Roth, and especially Oldman, are great in the lead roles with Dreyfuss also doing fine work here. The Blu-ray release from Image carries over the interviews from the last disc and includes a lengthy new addition to its previous supplemental package. It also gives us a good transfer and lossless audio. Recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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