It was a short period of my life where I thought Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were Americans, and that had everything to do with Branagh’s 1991 thriller, “Dead Again.”
I initially missed Branagh’s debut film, which celebrated Shakespeare’s adaptation of “Henry V” (1989) and was impressed not only by the compelling West Coast accents he and Thompson (both Brits) portrayed in “Dead Again”, but also by the enthusiastic nature of the film itself.
Branagh’s Mike Church is a Los Angeles detective who helps a woman with amnesia (Thompson). A chance meeting with an antique shop owner (Derek Jacobi) leads them in a strange way: through hypnosis we learn of a murder that took place in the 1940s and how it can play out in the moment.
“Dead Again” is a wodunit, presented in the modern day, but often flashes back to a lush contemporary story. Made with confidence in Panache, it starts “over the top” and continues.
Scott Frank’s delicious scenario explores the rationale of fate and whether it can be changed or when some things, no matter how horrible or completely inevitable, can not be improved.
It feels like an attempt at his great screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” (2002), which is also about whether an apparently certain murder will take place – both have a fetishistic obsession with the scissors. While Frank’s “Minority Report” screenplay is overwritten, with too many highlights in a fadeout scene that is both nonsensical and unsatisfactory, “Dead Again”, as absurd as it gets, narrows and builds cleverly to the end.
Branagh was happy to make his first Hollywood feature such a wild and relaxing car.
It deserves the saccharine elements of contemporary love story, as it is a contrast to the lurid murder story. Only the bloody finale is a bit much; Branagh’s later “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein” (1994), while reaching high points in many ways, is much more strenuous and written work.
This one may be after “too much”, but capable of building his dizzying plot, sticking to the dual identities and finding such surprising shots that I could not resist how ridiculous the story becomes.
Made back as Branagh was best known as an authoritative Shakespeare actor, this served as a surprising follow-up to “Henry V” and as a showcase for his versatility in front of and behind the camera. Branagh’s accent is discreet, more Kevin Kline than the exaggerated “American” dialect that is Tracey Ullman’s specialty.
It’s impressive that Branagh and Thompson are so good at playing West Coast Americans but, more importantly, they invest a sweetness in their roles.
Derek Jacobi’s excellent performance is a delight – knowing how far back he and Branagh go as Thespians with expertise in inhabiting the most famous figures of the bard, it’s a pleasure to watch their good and take. Campbell Scott has a knockout single scene with a great, memorable punchline. Andy Garcia brings just the right film noir note with his role – his scenes are subtle yet pivotal.
Robin Williams’ uneducated but extensive supportive turn is another great touch. This is yet another triumph for the late actor who excelled at playing dark, morally compromised but meaningful characters in films like this one.
I remember a premiere magazine article reporting that this once took place in a theater with the Garcia and Williams names on the marquee, not Branagh and Thompson; while they were unknown in the state before “Dead Again,” they became household names not long after.
Patrick Doyle’s exciting score is another great asset, complimenting the action rather than overshadowing it.
Branagh’s film was a sleepy hit, adding momentum to an unusual directorial career. The last time he made such a flamboyant film, it was the ambitious but ultimately exaggerated remake of “Sleuth” (2004). Now Branagh often serves Disney, helming “Thor” (2011) and the new Hercule Poirot series, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile” (the latter has yet to be released and, unless Armie Hammer becomes his public image rehabilitated, it can never be).
“Dead Again” is still Branagh’s best film, even though his 3-hour, damn-no-definite 1996 “Hamlet” is a second.
The visual style of “Dead Again” was aptly described as Hitchcockian but really, words like operatic and demonstrative apply as well.
There are shots of “Rebecca”, the staircase of “The Magnificent Ambersons”, the psychological mania of “Spellbound” and “Vertigo”, the previous pair of “Citizen Kane” and the casual gumshoeing of “The Long Goodbye.” The Branagh film takes a huge drip of all that is cinematic and expresses its dissatisfied narrative with a real zeal for the art form.
I love this movie.