I first plonked myself down in front of this enigmatically titled film because of the cast and the basic premise. I had no real idea what to expect. The opening didn’t help. Dead Again (1991, written by Scott Frank and directed by Kenneth Branagh) starts dramatically – there’s no doubt about that. An imposing score accompanies the tried and tested (if extremely clichéd) ‘newspaper headlines’ device, giving us the back story to a murder. What then follows is a scene of melodramatic 1940s noir, where a prisoner shrouded in shadow and mystery is having his final exchange with a journalist (Andy Garcia) before being taken to his death. This prisoner is Roman Strauss, played by Branagh, who is about to be executed for the murder of his wife, Margaret (played by Emma Thompson).
As Roman Strauss is walked to his execution, the scene twists into a nightmare and a woman wakes up screaming in modern day America. She has found herself with a religious order who take in waifs and strays – but she is far too troubled to stay with them. The Father presiding over the home calls in a favour from an ex-waif, Mike Church, now a private investigator. The hope is that this woman, who remembers nothing but is tormented by strange and violent dreams none the less, can be re-united with her family and, eventually, her memories. The private investigator, Mike Church, is also played by Kenneth Branagh. The amnesiac woman is also played by Emma Thompson. The seeds of a reincarnation-based thriller are sown. We’re talking; a murder mystery, past life regression, flashbacks, and – obviously – the ongoing eternal battle between good and evil. To explain too much would be to give everything away… this is a film which sometimes suffers for being over-egged but I’m not entirely sure I would change a thing about it. It’s possible Dead Again isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, but I would defend it in a fight like a cinema-going She-Wolf protecting a tub of over-sugared popcorn.
This film is clearly part of the Branagh oeuvre. He directs and stars, as he often does – and he casts a lot of friends in his films. Fresh out of Henry V (1989), Dereck Jacobi plays an antiques dealer with a flair for hypnotism. Thompson, also fresh out of Henry V was married to Branagh at the time of shooting. Robin Williams also has a role in this film – almost fleeting enough to be considered a cameo – and would later work with Branagh again in Hamlet (1996).
The soundtrack of Dead Again is composed by Patrick Doyle – another talent who Branagh has gone on to work with many times. I am a fan of Doyle’s work. I enjoy his version of “Sigh No More” from Much Ado About Nothing (1993) far more than is normal and the soundtrack to Disney/Pixar’s Brave (2012) is wonderful. However, the Dead Again soundtrack is often invasive – signposting peril far too frequently and for far too long. Doyle also has a cameo in this film (as he does in other Branagh movies) playing two different characters, one from the present day and one from the past. This is another directorial touch which helps to reinforce the theme of duality, of two sides often in opposition, throughout the film.
The film uses plenty of character shortcuts. Thompson is the amnesiac damsel-in-distress, Branagh the washed up and loveless private eye. Both Branagh and Thompson, UK acting legends, use American accents in the modern day portions of the film. This is jarring at first, particularly in Branagh’s case, but this does wear off. This decision also enables both leads to have contrasting accents in flashback. Dereck Jacobi’s camp British cad also draws on pre-existing character types.
However, these abbreviations are developed and sometimes even distorted. For example, Doctor Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams) is a former psychiatrist now working in a grocery store. Church inexplicably calls on Carlisle for advice. In a classic case of overshare, Williams delivers a clunky back story, revealing to the audience (because surely Church knew already…) that he was fired for sleeping with a few patients. Combined with the fact that Williams plays Carlisle as almost entirely unreadable, his character adds to an overall unsettling tone and reinforces that theme of duality once again. ‘Piccolo’ Dugan (played by Wayne Knight, most famous as the guy who steals the dino DNA in Jurassic Park, 1993) is another of Church’s contacts, who again delivers more back story than is strictly called for. An interesting character detail about Dugan is is the endearing (but again, unsettling) whistle in his speech. The cumulative effect of these character overshares is to give the impression that every character has a past – sometimes a littered with dark secrets – which connects them to the past of others.
There are plenty of pleasing directorial touches and satisfying touches in the screenplay. For example, the reoccurring imagery of blades and scissors and the concepts of cosmic karma and fate. There’s also a great scene in which the sound of an annoying downstairs neighbour on her piano is coupled with an unnerving tracking shot to convey the ‘tipping point’ in an argument. Plus – Miriam Margoyles regressed into a little girl – what more could you possibly want?
The screenplay also takes time to develop the relationship between Church and his mystery girl. The best example of this is when Church attempts to take her out to the wooing establishment of his choice and finds it closed. The two drink tea and make small talk outside instead. The date eventually blossoms into a rooftop based slow-dancing-and-kissing-in-the-rain conclusion – very corny but also extremely enjoyable. There’s also a nasty on-camera moment which will make any smokers (or non-smokers for that matter) dry-heave and attempt to drop-kick any nearby packets of cigarettes as far from their lungs as is humanly possible.
During the film’s immense finale, Branagh well and truly wrings out every millisecond for its dramatic potential… there’s… just… so… much… slow… motion… as well as some flashy past/present day intercutting. It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly not disappointing. Dead Again is ridiculously farfetched, wonderfully melodramatic, and a corking story. Repeat viewings have only increased my enjoyment of the film (I would recommend paying attention to character’s surnames, for instance). The movie is a surreal combination of casting, plot and execution and I still can’t believe it actually exists… but I’m pleased as anything that it does.