A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is the most famous modern example of a tour de force in which the action in "Hamlet" is viewed through the eyes of two of the bit players, Hamlet's college friends, who accompany him on his trip to England. We know "Hamlet" is about Hamlet. They think it's about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There's an old joke about the actor who is hired to play the gravedigger in "Hamlet." "What's it about?" his wife asks. "It's about a gravedigger who meets a prince," he says.
As a play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" is fascinating; we use our knowledge of "Hamlet" to piece together the half-glimpsed, incomplete actions of the major players, whose famous scenes we see a line or a moment at a time. As a movie, this material, freely adapted by Stoppard, is boring and endless. It lies flat on the screen, hardly stirring.
What went wrong? Since the original play is such a triumph, it is tempting to blame Stoppard in one way or another. Either his rewrite was too drastic, or his anachronistic references to future inventions are a distraction, or perhaps his camera is not confident or his cast (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth) is badly chosen.
None of those explanations will do. The rewrite would play just as successfully on the stage as the original, I suspect, and the anachronisms did not bother me, and the direction is competent and the casting defensible on the grounds that Oldman and Roth have been interesting before and will be interesting again. No, I think the problem is that this material was never meant to be a film, and can hardly work as a film.