How many times can you die for love?
A taut, electric thriller that fairly crackles with sharp acting, romance and noir touches, Dead Again is an overlooked gem crafted by people who grew up watching Hitchcock and noir films.
A good story needs just a simple "hook" to build upon, and Dead Again uses the simple premise of reincarnation, but with a twist. What if a murdered woman and her executed killer were reincarnated nearly fifty years later as totally new people—and then discover not only each other, but their past-life connection? Are they fated to recreate their fatal journey yet again, or is there an escape from their cycle of destiny? Screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) takes elements that are familiar (and hence may be seen as hackneyed to some) such as the wise-cracking private eye, the woman in distress, and the cynical reporter, mixes in the strange reincarnation/karmic plot threads, and produces an endearing, unique mystery.
Kenneth Branagh mentions in his commentary that the fingerprints of many directors may be found on the script before it fell into his hands, and further speculates that it was the reincarnation aspect which put them off the project. Their loss is Branagh's gain, whose direction keeps the suspense simmering but without harming the subtle notes of romance and humor. I think he realizes that this is a throwback popcorn movie brought forward into modern times, and so endeavors to make sure Dead Again never gets stuffy serious. This is the sort of movie where clues are carefully strewn in all sorts of places, so well that you may take several viewings (and commentary track listenings) to get all of the intentional clues, sly red-herrings and in-jokes.
From the opening credits, Dead Again tells us of a once adoring couple, Roman (Kenneth Branagh) and Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson), whose marriage of musical talents ended in the murder of Margaret and the conviction of Roman. A strange prelude to Roman's execution is rudely interrupted when a strange woman (still Emma Thompson!) wakes from her nightmare. This woman, suffering from amnesia, turns up at a children's home, leaving the nuns and priest who run the home in a quandary. They are rescued in the person of private-eye and former resident Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh), whose usual pursuits involve tracking down missing heirs, lost heirlooms, and such.
Mike agrees to help the woman out by finding her family. He gets his pal 'Piccolo' Pete Dugan (Wayne Knight) to take a picture and run it in the local paper, while Mike gives in to his soft heart and lets her stay at his apartment (temporarily, of course). The very next day, the curiously placid Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi) appears, offering his assistance as a hypnotist to regress the amnesiac back to the point of her nightmares, hopefully sparking her memory. When he does so, we find her telling the tale of Roman and Margaret, from the very first time they met through their marriage and onward. The regression though fruitful is most disturbing, leading Roman to the unconventional route of consulting brilliant though disgraced therapist Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams).
As the woman continues to slowly progress and a budding romance begins to take shape, Mike starts to dig around into the archives to learn the full story of Roman and Margaret. A merely curious mystery takes a darker tone when an impostor (Campbell Scott) pops up to try and trick Mike into letting the lady leave with him. The deception is uncovered, just barely, but Mike and his charge (eventually determined to be named Amanda Sharp) know that they must return to Franklyn Madison and return to the probing of her dreams. With each session, it becomes more and more apparent that this woman may very well have been Margaret Strauss in a past life, and that Mike Church may have been Roman Strauss.
The growing specter of fate looms large, as events seem hurling onwards to an inevitable climax where Roman will again murder Margaret. Before the end of the story, many surprises lay in store, not merely for the future of Mike and Amanda, but also as to the true facts behind the tragedy of Roman and Margaret.
The anamorphic video transfer is very good, though perhaps the black & white sequences do suffer from having been originally filmed on color stock and then bleached. This was done to make it clearer to the audience which sequences were in "modern" time and which were in "past time," as I suppose too many people would not have been sighted enough to notice the distinct differences in hair, dress, and set decoration. Aside from the moderate softness of picture and some visible film grain, there is not too much to find fault with in the transfer. Colors are decently saturated, though not as much as with a truly modern release, and the flesh tones and blacks are accurate.
As befits the subject matter, the audio is pleasing, using music and sound cues to enhance the inherent drama, but without being too intrusive or distracting. Patrick Doyle, who has worked with Kenneth Branagh on many films and stage productions, has created a score that from the first moment of the film gets your blood and brain working. At times dramatic, romantic, tensely atmospheric, Doyle's music keeps this noir-ish film on course. There are several highly tense moments where the music suddenly punches through to grab the audience, which some may find to be a bit of a cheat, but I simply enjoyed it as a cinematic device. The rear surrounds are used sparingly, as is the subwoofer, only to add some atmosphere and dramatic punch. Don't look for a rapid-panning, 360 degree 5.1 mix, but you should still be decently pleased.
Dead Again is a prime film to demonstrate what a wonderful acting couple were Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Celebrity, Love's Labour's Lost) and Emma Thompson (Much Ado About Nothing, Sense and Sensibility, Primary Colors). No doubt their off-screen relationship (now sadly ended in divorce) and professional skill on-screen made the slowly developing relationship between Mike/Roman and Amanda/Margaret so very natural. There is just a indescribable acting chemistry when both are on screen, and I can't get enough of their vibrant acting. To give them an even greater challenge, Branagh has the double task of playing his two roles as very different men with clearly distinct accents (though as he may admit, he is not as successful in the latter as he would have liked), whereas Thompson must convince us of Amanda's plight without any speech until well into Dead Again. Bravo! Encore!
Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius," Henry V, "Cadfael") is a marvelous actor with a classical bearing who has graced stage, screen, and television with his talents. His body language and facial cues in Dead Again fit perfectly into the role of Franklyn Madison, the enigmatic antiques dealer and hypnotist. Clearly an important character in getting at the truth of Mike/Roman and Amanda/Margaret, Sir Jacobi gives Franklyn that extra jolt so that we wonder what else might lurk behind his kind face. Robin Williams (Good Morning, Vietnam, The Birdcage, Patch Adams) can be a compelling dramatic actor when he gets the chance, instead of the crazed comic actor or the tear-jerking thespian with a post-graduate degree in mawkish sentimentality. You only get a few short scenes with his Dr. Cozy Carlisle, but every second of his dark humored, sharp-tongued former psychiatrist is wonderful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Extra content is good if you like to listen to commentary tracks, because the only content (aside from the adequate theatrical trailer), are two of them. The first, with producer Lindsay Doran and screenwriter Scott Frank, is a fairly typical commentary track in terms of content, though perhaps in need of more tightening. The second commentary, with actor/director Kenneth Branagh, is refreshing, as Branagh appropriately pauses to let dialogue flow so as to marshal his thoughts properly, rather than simply talking over everything. Furthermore, he gives you his insight both as an actor and a director, frankly admitting his struggles as well as his successes, with a nice, lightly humorous style.
Andy Garcia (The Untouchables, Black Rain, Steal Big, Steal Little) is a good actor, but he just doesn't convince me here as the hard-drinking, fast living, cynical reporter Gray Baker. There is too little seriousness and too much smirking attitude about him to pull off the role.
If you have only seen Branagh doing Shakespeare, then give Dead Again a try, especially if you have a taste for a well-acted, sprightly mystery. Thanks to Paramount's better decision making of late, I can heartily recommend Dead Again for rental or purchase ($30 retail), though it is priced a little high for a catalog title.
Perhaps Roman Strauss could not get a fair shake, but this Court will at least acquit Dead Again and its co-defendant Paramount of all charges. However, the Court would ask Paramount to keep working on its extra content so that it can soon be recognized as a consistently high-quality DVD studio.
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