Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dead Again: Past Lives Remembered

Branagh as Roman Strauss.
It was inevitable that Hollywood would come calling on Kenneth Branagh after he made Shakespeare films fashionable again with 1989's Henry V. Branagh used his newfound influence to star in and direct the stylish contemporary mystery Dead Again (1991). He also made sure that two of his Henry V co-stars, then-wife Emma Thompson and the incomparable Derek Jacobi, were given juicy parts. That was a wise decision considering their considerable acting prowess.

The brilliant opening sequence is composed of newspaper clippings which tell the backstory of composer Roman Strauss, who was suspected, arrested, convicted, and executed for murdering his wife Margaret in 1949. The film then opens in contemporary L.A., with a woman (Thompson) awakening from a nightmare to find herself at the Saint Audrey's School for Boys. She will not speak, has no identification documents, and appears to be amnesiac. The school's headmaster sends for Mike Church (Branagh), a private eye who was once a student at the Catholic orphanage.

Branagh as P.I. Mike Church.
Church agrees to place an ad in the newspaper for information leading to the woman's identity. He also plans to drop her off at a mental hospital, but changes his mind after seeing it. He take the woman, whom he later names Grace, to his home. 

The next day, an antiques dealer named Madson (Jacobi) comes calling. He wants to help Grace through hypnosis. Church protests, but Madson puts Grace under a trance quickly and she regains her speech. She then accepts Madson's offer of help and the next day, while under hypnosis, reveals that she was Margaret Strauss in a previous life.

Emma Thompson as Margaret.
There's a Hitchcockian quality to the script and one suspects that's what drew Branagh to Dead Again. The decision to have Branagh and Thompson also play Roman and Margaret not only strengthens the narrative, but makes it easier for audiences to understand. However, it's disconcerting that only one person comments on the physical similarities when it's obvious from old photographs that Grace doesn't just resemble Margaret...but looks just like her!

The decision to film the extensive flashback in black and white serves two purposes. First, it also makes the somewhat convoluted story easier to follow. More importantly, it evokes L.A. in the 1940s as filtered through the lens of old black-and-white Hollywood films. It's Branagh's way of paying homage to classic cinema--especially the works of Hitchcock and Welles--in a contemporary mystery with film noir elements. The choice of scissors as a murder weapon is a obvious reference to Hitchcock (Dial M for Murder) as is the artwork in Grace's apartment (the giant scissors remind me of the Dali dream sequence in Notorious). Incidentally, some people claim that the decision to shoot the flashbacks in black-and-white was made after test screenings. However, I couldn't find a reliable source to confirm that claim.
A sample of the artwork in Grace's apartment.
Derek Jacobi as Madson.
Emma Thompson and Derek Jacobi dominate the screen, even though the former doesn't utter any dialogue for the film's first 30 minutes. An unbilled Robin Williams also impresses as an disconcerting former psychologist who stocks shelves in a grocery store. As for Branagh, it's a matter of two performances: he's perfect as the jealous Roman Strauss, but seems downright out-of-place as detective Mike Church. From his peculiar American accent to his verbal ramblings, the film would have been served better by someone who underplayed the role.

Dead Again is a stylish, often engrossing murder mystery--but also a forgettable one. I watched it again recently and, despite having seen it theatrically, I couldn't remember a single plot point beyond the general premise. It serves as a effective reminder of just how hard these kinds of suspense films are to make. We tend to forget that because Hitchcock and De Palma (to a degree), made it look so easy.


  1. You're right – Hitchcock makes suspense/thrillers look easy, and I take it for granted. Still, I saw this one several years ago and I liked the twist near the end. In fact, I think it's time to see it again.

  2. I have to disagree with your assessment of this film. While I did find Kenneth Branagh's 'American'accent weird (it almost sounded Canadian), that didn't bother me. The story was amazing with all the plot twists & the ending really was quite a surprise. I did not think then, nor do I now think, this film is forgettable. Robin Williams was perfect in his unbilled role & provided a touch of levity, and I also loved Wayne Knight's character in the movie. Sir Derek Jacobi, as always, is always masterful. It's hard to imagine a Ken Branagh film without him because they work so well together. Emma Thompson is also a formidable co-star/foil to Ken. [I really loved them both in PBS's production of 'Fortunes of War.'] Andy Garcia was perfect for his role & that cigarette scene near the end blew me away. I personally felt this gem of a movie was underrated & overlooked, possibly because the three main actors weren't as well known here across the pond.

  3. Thanks for your review of this movie Rick. I just saw it again myself as it's be playing on cable the last couple of weeks. A good but not great film as you make clear. I remember seeing Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson dining next to our table at the Beverly Hills Hotel at the time they were making this movie. We had our dinner and they had theirs and let them enjoy it in peace without disturbing them by stares or questions. I had forgotten this episode until watching Dead Again - too bad it wasn't the classic it could have been.