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.
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.
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.
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.
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.