Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, and Derek Jacobi
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Exhilarating romantic thriller
Dead Again was an unusual choice for Kenneth Branagh to follow up his Oscar-nominated Henry V (1989). Having been hailed as the new Laurence Olivier, he made this supernatural romantic thriller instead of another Shakespearean effort or, at least, a prestige film. With Dead Again, however, he shows his range as a director, proving that he can make exciting entertainment as well as more esteemed productions.
The film opens with a dramatic montage of newspaper headlines from the late 1940s, detailing the murder of pianist Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s then wife) and the subsequent trial, conviction, and execution of her husband, composer Roman Strauss (Branagh) for the crime.
In the present day, a woman lacking her memory and the ability to speak (also played by Thompson) arrives at a convent (which was once the home of the Strausses). Private investigator Mike Church (also played by Branagh) is charged with finding out who she is. With the help of antiques dealer and part-time hypnotist Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), the woman regains her voice and remembers, not her present identity, but the events in the past that led up to the Strauss murder. Although the main storyline of the film has to do with reincarnation, it doesn’t seem like a supernatural thriller. Once the characters buy the idea of past lives, no other information about the supernatural is covered.
I often see Dead Again described as a neo-noir, perhaps because it contains a private investigator and a mystery from the 1940s. However, film noir doesn’t own the 1940s. There were plenty of thrillers from that decade that were not films noir. Dead Again lacks the sense of bleakness and alienation that permeate noir, and the private detective does not have to delve into a warped society where he must maintain his existential code in order not to fall into the moral cesspool himself.
Instead, the scenes in the past, which appear in black & white, resemble the thrillers of Hitchcock more than noir. These scenes have the marks of the Hitchcockian style, including unusual perspectives, point-of-view shots, and sudden close-ups. They also contain numerous examples of characters looking at others, particularly observing people who don’t know they’re being watched, a common element in Hitchcock’s films, particularly Rear Window. The story of a woman who doesn’t know if she can trust her romantic partner is one Hitchcock used often, as in Rebecca and Suspicion. Furthermore, the score by Patrick Doyle resembles the work of frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
As the film progresses, these stylistic elements increasingly intrude on the present day (color) scenes, showing the past having greater and greater impact on the characters now. And the mystery of the identity of the amnesiac woman, whom Mike calls Grace, fades in importance as these characters work to solve the murder of Margaret Strauss.
The resolution of the mystery is surprising, but rewatching the movie reveals numerous clues planted in Scott Frank’s script. Mysteries that manage to be surprising while building up clues to the killer’s identity, which is obvious only after it is revealed, are the best kind. Here, the suspects include Roman Strauss; his housekeeper, Inga (Hanna Schygulla); and reporter and friend of Margaret, Gray Baker (Andy Garcia).
Although this isn’t the type of movie where the acting matters as much as the script and the direction, the performances are universally good, particularly in the supporting roles. Jacobi; Garcia; Wayne Knight, as Mike’s photographer friend; and an uncredited Robin Williams, as a disgraced psychiatrist—all create memorable multi-layered characters.
One minor performance flaw is Thompson’s difficulty maintaining an American accent, but I think that problems with accents are given too much relative importance by viewers, perhaps because it’s one area of performance that’s obvious to casual viewers of film. Her acting, on the whole, is excellent. She shows her present-day character struggling to communicate without a voice and then draws back her expressions when the character recovers her speech.
Both Thompson and Branagh present two distinct characters because, even with the reincarnation angle, they are playing two different people. However, unlike many double roles, these characters aren’t complete opposites; they are more subtly different.
As entertaining and masterfully constructed as Dead Again is, it got little recognition at the time of its release. Many critics objected to the supernatural element in the premise or the film’s baroque style. However, if viewers can get past the issue of reincarnation, they will be able to appreciate a well-crafted story and a stylishly directed film.