The Dual Roles Blogathon: Dead Again (1991)

This post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

Even when it was made twenty-five years ago, the suspense thriller Dead Again was already a throwback to a kind of film they almost never make anymore.

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Starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, and co-starring his then-wife Emma Thompson, it updated the atmospheric melodramas Hollywood churned out during the 1940s. Adding reincarnation as an extra plot twist, it could have been a disastrous sophomore directorial effort for Branagh, who’d recently had a critically-acclaimed debut with his adaptation of Shakespeare Henry V.

Instead, it’s a stylish, entertaining, and in some ways unique take on the romantic thriller. At the center of the film are the dual performances by Branagh and Thompson, who play supposed reincarnations of characters whose story we get to know in flashbacks filmed in black and white, to add to the throwback feeling of the film.

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The film opens in 1949 with orchestra conductor Roman Strauss (Branagh) on death row about to go to his execution for killing his wife Margaret (Thompson). News reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) tries to get some significant last words from Strauss before he dies. Strauss leans over and whispers something in his ear.

Forty years later, Mike Church (also Branagh) is a private detective who was raised in an orphanage run by the Catholic Church. He is pressed into service by the priest who runs the orphanage for help in dealing with a woman (also Thompson) who has not only lost her memory, but also seems to have lost the ability to speak.

Reluctant to take on the responsibility of caring for a woman with a mental illness, he takes her to the county hospital. Horrified by the conditions, he instead names her “Grace” and takes her home while he tries to find out her identity. After running an ad in the paper with her picture, an antiques dealer named Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi) claims he can help Grace by hypnotizing her.

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Madson regresses her so that she remembers the lives of Roman and Margaret Strauss. When she awakens, she can speak again, but still has no memory of her present life. Church is stunned to find out there really was a married couple named Roman and Margaret Strauss, who were famous classical musicians during the 1940s and the center of a famous murder trial. He is even more stunned when photos of the couple reveal a striking resemblance to him and Grace.

They continue investigating the lives of Roman and Margaret in hopes of diminishing Grace’s frequent nightmares. Church and Grace fall in love, even though they are keenly aware Grace may have a husband or lover from her life before she lost her memory.

There are a couple of neat twists that I would prefer not to reveal. The film features some terrific cameo appearances, including by the late Robin Williams (which was uncredited), German New Wave actress Hannah Schygulla, and Campbell Scott.

One issue I’ve always had with Branagh’s directorial efforts is that they tend to be overblown and over-directed. That’s not entirely untrue here, but for some reason it works. The other reason it works is the chemistry between Branagh and Thompson in both the present and flashback sections of the film. (Kind of a shame their personal split meant a professional one, as well.) Also of note is they play American characters in the present (without the annoyingly bad interpretation of an American accent used by many British actors). Margaret is British and Roman is German, so they have to flip from accent to accent.

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The style of the two time periods in the film couldn’t be more different – the hard, modern L.A. contrasts with the glam, nostalgic vibe of the 1940s sections. The 1940s sections, even beyond the black and white photography, have the feel of a 1940s suspense/melodrama. The entire movie was originally filmed entirely in color. The change to black and white for the flashbacks was to prevent audience confusion. It’s one of those decisions that also could have sunk the movie, but it’s hard to imagine the film all in color now.

The film is little bit modern, a little bit classic, anchored by two actors doing a stunning job playing dual roles. It makes me nostalgic not just for classic movies, but for mature modern suspense thrillers that are now rare on movie screens.

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13 thoughts on “The Dual Roles Blogathon: Dead Again (1991)

  1. “A little bit modern, a little bit classic” sounds delightful! Especially with that cast. It’s so true…they don’t seem to make mature thrillers anymore. I wonder why…

    The idea of reincarnation with the (relatively recent) past of 1949 is very intriguing, another film I now want to see very much. 🙂 Thanks so much for this great post and for participating!

  2. It’s been many years since I’ve seen this film, but I still remember it vividly. (At least, I think I do.) The twist at the end was one I DID NOT see coming.

    Like you said, this is an incredible film: stylish, smart and lots of atmosphere. You’ve made me want to experience it again.

    Thanks for joining the Dual Roles blogathon and for bringing this terrific film with you. 🙂

  3. I absolutely love this movie. It was the first one to pop into my head when I saw the dual role blogathon. They did a spectacular job, both, in their roles. The whole thing is fantastic. A few things I didn’t know, though, like they filmed it in color then changed it. I can’t imagine the entire movie in color. Great post!

    1. I didn’t know that, either, until I researched the film for this post. Amazing the tidbits of information that come up when you research a film.

      Thanks!

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