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    Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

    Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 112 mins . PG . PAL


    Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard's Tony award-winning play, is widely considered a masterpiece of post-modern theatre. Originally conceived in 1967, it has enjoyed numerous runs with some of the world’s most respected theatre companies. Produced in 1991, this movie adaptation marked Stoppard’s first foray into cinema. More recently, Stoppard has come to the attention of a more mainstream cinema audience through his 1998 opus Shakespeare in Love.

    It’s the late middle-ages and two bufoons, Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and his friend Guildenstern (Tim Roth), have taken to horse-back on a matter of grave-importance. They just can’t recall quite what it is. Deep in a thick forest they come upon a ragged troupe of travelling players led by someone looking quite like Richard Dreyfus. In exchange for a few gold coins, the troupe promises an impromptu performance of a famous tragedy. Not only are our protagonists the audience for this performance, they are promised an ‘inclusive’, interactive experience.

    "... fancy a game of questions?"

    The next thing they know, our hapless travellers find themselves transported into the court of the King of Denmark and slap-bang in the middle of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. For, as you may have guessed, these are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Hamlet’s old university chums who are called upon to try and determine the cause of Hamlet’s sudden melancholy. Of course we, the modern audience (with our foreknowledge of the bard’s tale), are aware that neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern, despite playing but a small part in proceedings, live to see the end of the production – killed off by a cruelest of plot twists. However, of this our dimwitted heroes are keenly ignorant.

    And so with no knowledge of the script, and armed only with observations gleaned from the fleeting threads of half-heard dialogue, our bit players in this epic drama manage as best they can. And thus we are presented with the story of Hamlet from a very unusual perspective; Stoppard allowing us to ponder just what the bit parts in an epic drama get up to when they aren’t centre stage.

    Always in the background, our heroes catch snippets of Shakespeare’s famous script; and continually attempt to make sense of what is happening from their limited perspective. In fact, they can’t even clearly recall which of them is Rozencrantz and which is Guildenstern. As they strive to unravel the story, they amuse themselves with hilarious word games and mindless observation; the latter resulting in the re-discovery of many fundamental scientific principles.

    Both Gary Oldman and Tim Roth put in brilliant performances as our hapless protagonists. As Rosencrantz, a dimwit who remains cheerful in the face of their increasing confusion, Oldman carries the majority of the comedic load. As Guildenstern, Roth generally plays the straight man to Oldman; becoming angry as his confusion grows, and taking this anger out on his friend. These two consummate performers slip effortlessly between their Shakespearian alter ego’s and the buffoons that inhabit them. Both gifted physical comedians, their pratfalls, verbal patter and petty squabbles are a constant source of amusement.

    Thematically, this theatre of the absurd explores the senselessness of the human condition, expounding on the nature of life and death. In particular, Stoppard muses on the notion that if you are fated to die, are you in fact, already dead? The troupe of players provides a useful backdrop for musing on death, given that dying is a major part of a tragedian actor’s job description. The troupe used in the film, a group of Yugoslavian mimes (many of the films locations were in Yugoslavia) are fantastic, and provide many an entertaining distraction. Not that there’s any of that man pressed against window or walking into the wind crap to sit through; suffice to say they deftly illustrate the origins of the phrase ‘ribbons of blood’.

    This is a Shakespearian adaptation like no other.


    Full-frame, pan-and-scan. Do you need to know more? Yep, this is what we get on this single-sided, single-layer disc from Force. I would like to be able to say that they’ve made up for this with a crystal clear image. Sadly this is not the case.

    The print itself is quite clean and the transfer exhibits only the odd film artefact. In general, with grungy medieval locations and leather costumes of the late middle-ages, the colours in the film are quite muted and earthy browns and greys predominate. The colours that do appear are well balanced with realistic reproduction of flesh tones.

    The image itself is a little on the soft side, and the detail suffers. Despite this, on the whole I’m prepared to say that the foreground image is reasonable. However, the level of background detail is quite low, with film grain, compression artefacts and to a lesser extent MPEG posterization representing an almost constant addition to most scenes. On the flip-side, black levels are good and mostly impenetrable. However they’re a little too impenetrable, with probably the worst level of shadow detail I have ever seen.

    Despite these problems, the real clincher is the over abundance of edge enhancement that appears throughout the transfer. Usually the odd bit of edge enhancement doesn’t worry me that much. But, hard as I try, I just couldn’t ignore it here. Towards the end of the film, during the scenes on board ship, the edge enhancement reaches ridiculous levels – so bad in fact that it bleeds from the edge of Guildenstern’s face into the background.

    To my untrained eye, the transfer appears to have come straight from a video master. All in all, pretty disappointing stuff from Force.


    Only one audio track is supplied, English Dolby Digital Stereo. There are no subtitles. As you have probably already worked out, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is primarily a dialogue-based comedy and (thankfully) the dialogue is clear and nicely integrated. Audio sync is never an issue.

    The stereo soundtrack, whilst not utilising the surrounds or subwoofer, provides a reasonable compliment to the film. A reasonable amount of ambient noise is provided, and the mix with the score is well balanced. The score itself is worthy of note. Utilising a mixture of ye olde worlde and very modern instruments, the inherent contrast in styles and sounds effectively reflects the feeling of displacement felt by the protagonists.

    All in all, this is not an audio experience to write home about. On the other hand, there's little to complain about either.


    The disc’s menus are static and silent and like the feature, are not 16x9 enhanced. Apart from chapter selection (sic) no other extras are provided - a real disappointment given the cult status of this film. I guess with the lack of enthusiasm and or money put into the transfer itself, extras are a bit of an ask.


    There is no doubt that Stoppard’s play-within-a-play or in this case play-within-a-film makes for fabulous cinema. With a sharp, intelligent script and satisfying depth of subplot, the adventures of these footnotes to dramatic history contains more to digest than a single viewing can provide. Although a basic knowledge of Hamlet or of science history will greatly enhance your enjoyment of this film, it isn’t strictly necessary. Enriched by fantastic performances from its leads, this was easily one of 1991’s best movies and remains one of my all time favourites.

    I was always going to purchase this disc and have been eagerly awaiting its release in R4. However, given the sub-standard transfer, I would be loathe to recommend this disc to anyone but fans. Rent it first and see what you think.

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      And I quote...
    "Fabulous cinema ... the adventures of these footnotes to dramatic history contains more to digest than a single viewing can provide."
    - Gavin Turner
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Toshiba SD-2108
    • TV:
          Panasonic TC-68P90A TAU (80cm)
    • Receiver:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Amplifier:
          Yamaha RX-V795
    • Speakers:
          B&W 602
    • Centre Speaker:
          B&W CC6 S2
    • Surrounds:
          JM Lab Cobalt SR20
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Standard Component RCA
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