Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Okay, I can't do Hamlet without doing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.  It's a minor masterpiece and a personal favorite.  The more Tom Stoppard on disc the better, I say; and this is the ultimate Stoppard film.  Image first released this on DVD in 2005, finally allowing us to replace our laserdiscs, as a bit of a neat special edition on two discs.  Later, RLJ Entertainment, which is just Image rebranded, released it as an even fuller 25th Anniversary blu-ray edition in 2016.
Based on his own play, writer/ director Stoppard gives us something wonderfully inventive with 1990's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.  It dances elegantly along the thin line between a silly comedy (with additional comic bits for Rosencrantz added to the film version) fleshing out the ironic fates of two of Shakespeare's unluckiest characters, and a weighty, existential art film.  Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) are dealt a shrift, cruel hand in Hamlet, a work they're still trapped in here.  But this time they're given the space to question, if not defy, their most famously scripted destinies.  Of course, it's essential to know what that is exactly.  Stoppard may have over-estimated our modern educational system on that front.
"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" isn't quite Hamlet's last line, but it's on the last page, their doom announced as a sort of twisted punchline to the extremely bloody tragedy.  But why?  Only the traveling player (Richard Dreyfus), leader of the troupe that would elicit a confession from the king, seems willing or able to discuss it with them.  Everyone else can only follow the grim procession to its violent end.  Game of Thrones' Iain Glen is capable, not great, as Prince Hamlet himself.  But that's fine, because he doesn't have a major part here, and the three leads of this show are all fantastic.  The production values are high, with excellent locations and art design, though they clearly had to cut a few corners with the final act at sea.  But it creates a more than credible world that add s lifelike weight to the fictitious surroundings.  The moody soundtrack and firelight evoke a mood suggesting that this is something far darker and more foreboding than Abbott & Costello Meet the Prince of Denmark, though they do also indulge in some genuinely amusing Vaudeville routines.  This film truly has everything.
2005 Image DVD top; 2016 RLJ BD bottom.
It's a nice little upgrade.  The aspect ratio is corrected from 1.82:1 to 1.85:1, revealing a little extra picture along the sides.  Grain is honestly still a little soft and smudgy, but the image is definitely clearer than the DVD with sharper lines, restored detail and less (though perhaps not zero) edge enhancement.  This is a dual-layered disc, allotting the film a healthy 23.1 gigs.  It looks like Tim Roth's mouth has been erased on the DVD in that second set of shots, and recovered on the blu.  Contrast is higher, too, with noticeably brighter highlights, which does make it easier to follow the action in the film's many dark scenes.

The DVD includes both the original stereo track plus a 5.1 remix with optional English subtitles.  The blu ditches the 5.1 but bumps the stereo to lossless DTS-HD and hangs on to the subs.
Stoppard, now in HD!
We don't get any commentaries, but we get individual, on camera interviews with each of the four main players: Roth, Oldman, Dreyfus and Stoppard himself, all of which are nearly an hour long.  Well, Roth's is more like 33 minutes, but it still gets pretty seriously in depth.  It also throws in a tiny stills gallery.  And the blu-ray keeps all of that except the gallery, replacing it with something much better: a second Stoppard interview, this time in conversation with producer Michael Brandman, which is also quite good.  Although, yes, he does tell most of the same anecdotes and jokes in most of the same ways.
So happily this essential cinematic outing is more than adequately presented on home video.  Could this stand a more up-to-date release in 4k?  Sure, every film could.  And maybe Criterion, Kino or Arrow could hire a proper Shakespeare scholar to provide an educational commentary track, or get Peter Biziou to sit down and talk to us about his memories shooting in Yugoslavia.  But if RLJ's blu is the best release this film receives in my lifetime, I'll be satisfied.

No comments:

Post a Comment