The first time I saw this it was as a play in Bath. What's that? Yes, that would be in a foreign country. I remember thinking, "wow, that was really good. Entertaining, fun, and smart." The End. I didn't think much else about it.
Then I took a Shakespeare class which whetted my passion for everything Shakespeare. Naturally I couldn't pass up this gem, especially considering I'd already put in my requisite time with Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branaugh. I decided that this was the time for some Gary Oldman.
The story follows the narrative of Hamlet, but from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's oldest friends who get caught up in the action and inadvertently betray him. The running joke in Hamlet is that no one can seem to tell them apart, they are constantly correcting themselves but without any guidance from Rosencrantz or Guildenstern.
In this retelling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know nothing more than the information presented in Hamlet. They are as characters brought to life, having no knowledge beyond their own role in the story. They know they're going to Elsinore, but why? They were requested. They hear Hamlet is their oldest friend and thus fulfill their role for the simple reason that they don't know what else to do. In the context of Hamlet, this not only explains the confusion surrounding their identities (they don't even know which is which) but also makes sense of the way the two friends become pawns of everyone they encounter.
As the two men make their way through the narrative they constantly take the opportunity to stop, and question the metaphysical psychology of their situation. In one particularly funny scene they physically act out a match of "questions" on a tennis court, switching sides for service, and artfully shifting between and game and a natural inquisition.
One famous aspect of Shakespeare's Hamlet is the use of a play within a play to seek out the guilt of Hamlet's uncle Claudius. Naturally, this retelling uses the same technique to foreshadow the fate of the pair, and it could even be argued that we are seeing a play within a play within a play within a play. And that's exactly what makes the film so much fun.
While there are numerous revealing allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are an equal number of independently amusing moments that will appeal to all audiences. Whether they are Shakespeare scholars or merely fans of clever puns and witty banter.