By Marc S. Sanders
Kenneth Branagh is inventive director. Arguably, his most uncelebrated film is the noir inspired mystery, Dead Again, which features himself and his wife at the time, Emma Thompson, in the leading roles.
Branagh and Thompson do double duty, playing multiple parts in two different time periods. In a 1940s post war Los Angeles, they are Roman and Margaret Strauss. Roman is a composer. Margaret is a musician in his company. They quickly fall in love and live in the limelight of glitz and glamour amid the gossip magazines of the time. Their life together only becomes juicier when Roman is sentenced to death for the murder of Margaret. The weapon of choice, a pair of scissors.
In present day 1991, Branagh portrays a private detective named Mike Church who ends up being responsible for an amnesiac, Thompson, who can’t even speak when she’s found. The woman has unexplainable dreams that recall moments of Roman and Margaret’s life together only to end up as terrible nightmares. A curious hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) enters the story to lend aid to Mr. Church and the woman. He serves as a guide, bringing her back to the times of the celebrity couple, helping her to find clues that perhaps could lead to her true identity and uncover exactly why she is haunted by these dreams.
Additional characters enter the storyline as well. There’s Wayne Knight as a humorous sidekick for Church. In the flashback 1940s, there’s Andy Garcia as a handsome Pulitzer winning journalist who follows the escapades of Roman and Margaret.
Dead Again is not a long movie, and that lends to how good a film it is. It’s a lean picture that sets up its clues the moment it starts. Branagh gives you a background tutorial with newspaper headlines that flash up within the opening credits. The two time periods are separated with the 1940s shown in gorgeous black and white, while the modern scenes are presented in color. Branagh puts on a German accent for Roman. Thompson is English for Margaret. In the present day, they are Americans. Of course, it is acknowledged that the respective characters look alike and that allows for possibilities of reincarnation, karma and past lives to enter the frame.
The screenplay from Scott Frank gets you curious. What connection could these two wildly different couples have with one another? What don’t we know about the murder of Margaret at the hands of her husband, Roman? Who really is the woman that Thompson is portraying in modern times? How is it possible that a private dick like Mike would coincidentally end up with this “Margaret lookalike” amnesiac?
The cast is having a lot of fun with the puzzle, particularly Derek Jacobi. His old English mannerisms offer a relaxing storyteller’s narrative to the film. It feels as if his hypnotist carried over from an Alfred Hitchcock film. I also appreciate how far apart the respective characters that Branagh and Thompson play. Not only am I watching a thrilling mystery, but I’m looking at skilled, well-trained actors demonstrating a wide range of performance work. At times, it’s as if I’m watching two different movies. How exactly are they going to intersect, though?
I originally saw Dead Again in theatres and was taken with it immediately. I did not see the end coming and when the veil was lifted, my eyes went wide open. It has a terrific plot twist. Branagh, known at the time as a celebrated Shakespearean actor/director, introduced a sweeping, mystery yarn that relishes in fun escapism like Hitchcock or Orson Wells would apply to film noir. It only makes sense, looking back over thirty years later, why the director opted to turn his craft towards rejuvenating the classic Agatha Christie stories (Murder On The Orient Express, Death On The Nile) for film. We are better for his contributions.
Now, Dead Again is a film that deserves the attention from a new generation of movie lovers.