Dead Again (United States, 1991)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Of the eight movies committed to celluloid by director Kenneth Branagh, five of them have been either adapted from one of Shakespeare's plays (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost) or have made significant use of the Bard's words (A Midwinter's Tale). From the remaining group of three, only one is noteworthy. Dead Again, Branagh's second effort behind the camera, is an Alfred Hitchcock homage - and a very good one, at that. Unlike most modern nods to the master filmmaker (for example, the collected works of Brian DePalma), Dead Again does not come across as a Hitchcock knock-off, but as a motion picture that incorporates familiar themes and approaches while maintaining its own integrity and identity. Not once during the entire production is there an obviously stolen scene or camera angle replication.

Over the course of 107 minutes, Branagh fashions a fascinating puzzle that contains its share of action, romance, dry wit, and (of course) twists & turns. And, unlike most thrillers, there's a distinct element of unpredictability to the latter. Dead Again contains two significant plot contortions. While it's possible, and even reasonable, for an intelligent viewer to surmise the second, the first is almost unguessable. I didn't figure it out before Branagh explicitly revealed it, nor do I know anyone else who has done so.

Dead Again is a tale of parallel stories in different time frames. The first, which transpires in post-World War II Los Angeles and is presented entirely through black-and-white flashbacks, relates the tragic romance of Roman and Margaret Strauss (Branagh and his then-wife, Emma Thompson). Roman, a German expatriate, is a world-famous composer and conductor, and Margaret, a Brit relocated to North America, is an up-and-coming musician. They meet when Roman conducts Margaret's orchestra, and it's love at first sight. They are soon married, but their fairytale existence begins to fray. Margaret is suspicious that Roman's housekeeper, Inga (Hanna Schygulla), and her son, Frankie (Gregor Hesse), may be stealing from Roman. He, in turn, is wary of her relationship with a reporter named Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), who appears to be exceeding the bounds of friendly propriety. This all leads to murder (I'm not giving anything away here, since this is revealed during an opening montage of newspaper clippings). Margaret is stabbed to death using a pair of scissors, an expensive anklet is stolen, and Roman is arrested and convicted. He goes to the electric chair claiming to be innocent.

The other part of the story occurs in 1991 Los Angeles, where a solitary private investigator, Mike Church (Branagh), has been requested by a local priest to uncover the identity of a pretty woman (Thompson) who has lost her voice and her memory. (She is given the faux name of Grace.) Mike's friend, newspaper man Pete (Wayne Knight), puts her photograph in the local paper, and the only respondent is a hypnotist/junk dealer named Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi), who believes that a trauma from the woman's past life may be causing her mute amnesia. He puts "Grace" under, and she begins to see visions from Roman and Margaret's life. She regains her voice, but not her memory, and, as she and Mike grow closer, she cannot avoid noticing similarities between their relationship and that of Roman and Margaret. As she looks more deeply into the past, she begins to fear Mike, sensing that he could be Roman re-incarnated and that the murder of 45 years ago may be about to happen again. Then, when Mike agrees to be hypnotized, he uncovers a startling secret.

Although Dead Again's story is complicated, Branagh presents it in a clear, straightforward manner that leaves little room for confusion. Each of the plot twists is exposed with suitable buildup, maintaining viewer interest. The characters, both past and present, are remarkably well-developed, and there is a legitimate sense of uncertainty concerning Roman's guilt. He may have gone to the electric chair for Margaret's murder, but did he really commit the deed? Branagh keeps us guessing until the plot demands the disclosure of the truth.

One of the reasons for Dead Again's strong resonance and appeal is the way it toys with two issues that fascinate almost everyone: chance and fate. Regardless of their religious beliefs, most people find the notion of reincarnation appealing; there's always something we would like to do over, and the idea that we'll have another life with a fresh slate offers the hope of a second chance. The idea of karma is equally tantalizing. If someone commits an infraction that he or she doesn't pay for in this life, the opportunity for redress will come in the next one. Or, as one of the characters in Dead Again puts it: "That's the karma credit plan: buy now, pay forever." And, of course, we'd all like to think that if we live again, we'll be surrounded by the same group of loved ones, even if their outward appearances have changed. Consequently, it's difficult not to be intrigued by the parallel life situation highlighted in Dead Again. And, when it comes to interweaving the two and offering a fulfilling resolution, Branagh and screenwriter Scott Frank do not disappoint us.

There are a number of wonderful little touches in the film. In one scene, our heroic protagonist is beaten up badly in a short, one-sided fight (we almost never see this kind of understated action in a motion picture - most hand-to-hand combat lasts forever, with dozens of punches being thrown). When Madison hypnotizes people, he implants subconscious suggestions that they reveal information about any antiques they may encounter during their trips through past lives. There's a product placement for cigarettes that the company definitely didn't pay for. And Branagh uses a secondary player (Jo Anderson) in multiple roles - as a young starlet in the '40s and as a nun in the '90s - to further emphasize the theme of duality.

It has been said that every great film has at least a trio of standout scenes, and the only difficulty with Dead Again is limiting the choice to three. The opening credits, with headlines screaming out "Murder!", get the film off to a quick start. Later, in a sequence that crackles with tension (and which features a single, unbroken shot), Mike pulls a frightened Grace through all the rooms in his apartment, giving her every pair of scissors he owns, then offering her a gun for protection. Finally, when nervous exhaustion has overtaken him, he makes a stunning slip-of-the-tongue. The subsequent scene, in which Mike's past identity is revealed, is a model of cinematic austerity, employing a simple point-of-view shot; those who aren't paying attention won't realize what has happened.

The ending is presented in a grand, operatic fashion, with slow-motion shots, cuts between the past and the present, a soaring (almost bombastic) score by Patrick Doyle, and a grotesquely satisfying coup de grace. The final scene is over-the-top, but that's obviously by design. Hitchcock, it should be noted, was not known for understated finales, and Branagh emulates him here, digging back into his Shakespearean roots and pulling out all the stops. Had it not worked, it would have been easy to criticize the director about this point, but he pulls it off, resulting in a rousing final three minutes.

Branagh has always been known for unique casting, and his choices for Dead Again are no exception. As in all of his early movies, he is paired with Emma Thompson. The two have a lively and effective chemistry, and neither stumbles for a moment over their American accent. (As Roman, Branagh must also speak with a more troublesome German inflection.) In general, Branagh is regarded as a theatrical actor, and, although his performance here is hardly subdued, it is perfect for the material. Derek Jacobi, a longtime Branagh contributor (he also appeared in Henry V and Hamlet), brings a hint of wicked humor to his portrayal, and is given an opportunity for an in-joke related to his most famous role (the lead in the BBC-TV production of I, Claudius). Andy Garcia's interpretation of Gray Baker is predominately one-note, but this serves to make the character enigmatic. And, as psychiatrist-turned-supermarket worker Doctor Cozy Carlisle, Robin Williams gives an atypical turn. Carlisle is an angry man who feels he has been screwed by life, and there's no room for anything but the blackest of humor in the performance. Even in Dead Poets Society, Williams did not play his part this straight.

Rhythm is a critical element of any psychological thriller, and Dead Again is no exception. However, unlike most Hitchcock wannabes, this one has it. High points and shock revelations are interspersed with exposition, and the characters are not permitted to degenerate into walking clich├ęs. Dead Again moves at fast enough pace to keep us engaged and interested, but never threatens to lose us in a whirl of confusion and irrelevant detail. The production design, responsible for the gothic feel of Roman's mansion and the cutting-edge look of Grace's apartment, is top-notch. Matthew Leonetti's cinematography is effective at capturing moods. and Patrick Doyle's memorable score fits the production perfectly. Like Roman composing a piece, Branagh has combined all of these cinematic elements into an achievement that rivals Hitchcock's best work and stands out as one of the most intriguing and memorable thrillers of the 1990s.

Dead Again (United States, 1991)

Ranked #106 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1991-08-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1