Dead Again
directed by Kenneth Branagh
(Paramount, 1991)

The headlines scream "MURDER!"

The opening credits vie with headlines detailing the murder of Margaret Strauss, the arrest and trial of her husband, composer Roman Strauss, and his eventual conviction and pending execution. Cut to his jail cell, a taut scene in black and white, as Roman calmly prepares for his own death, a quizzical reporter asks his final questions and a silent guard cuts the prisoner's hair to its roots.

The atmospheric opener to Dead Again leads into a potent film about past lives and destiny. Cut to modern Los Angeles, where cynical, wise-cracking private investigator Mike Church is summoned to the ancient Strauss home, now a church-run orphanage, to track down information on a unidentified, seemingly mute woman who has turned up at the door. His efforts to find her past lead to another life and a fate which may have drawn them together.

Shortly after Kenneth Branagh's triumphant directorial debut in Henry V, he came out with an offbeat mystery/thriller called Dead Again. While this didn't make the splash of Henry V or the upcoming Much Ado About Nothing, the film spotlights both Branagh's creative directing style and his diverse abilities as an actor.

Of course, these were also the heady days when Ken was still partnered, professionally and privately, with Emma Thompson. The two were a creative force to be reckoned with, conjuring amazing chemistry on-screen, and they display their talents in dual roles in Dead Again. Branagh is Mike Church and the moody Roman Strauss; Thompson is the woman without a past, dubbed Grace in lieu of her true identity, and Margaret Strauss. Mike's investigation leads to Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi in a marvelously eccentric performance), an antiques dealer and hypnotist whose efforts to uncover Grace's past leads instead into an apparent past life -- that of Roman and Margaret.

In a series of flashbacks, all shot in atmospheric black and white, we see their relationship unfold in the giddy years following World War II. Roman and Margaret struggle to hold their world together, along with Inga (Hanna Schygulla), Roman's brooding housekeeper, and Frankie (Gregor Hesse), Inga's stuttering child, as former war correspondent Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) circles in for the kill. Jealousies and tensions build to the inevitable climax.

Meanwhile, events continue in the present, with an imposter (Campbell Scott) posing as Grace's fiance in an attempt to lure her away from Mike's care, Pete Dugan (Wayne Knight) providing bumbling support and a defrocked psychiatrist (Robin Williams in an uncredited performance) offering sideline advice. The climactic sequences, first in the past, then in the present, serve up some surprising revelations -- I defy anyone to predict the twists this plot will take. (Patrick Doyle, a long-time Branagh collaborator, deserves a nod for his moody, ominous score.)

Dead Again is a powerfully romantic, noirish film that deserves more attention than it received when released in 1991. Branagh's direction is bold and decisive, demonstrating a knack for intense camera work. He, Thompson and Jacobi in particular turned in strong performances in a challenging drama. If you haven't seen it, don't delay further!

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 15 September 2001

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