From the early to mid-1990s, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson was a power celebrity couple that managed to be incredibly popular, especially in their native United Kingdom, while also steering clear of being absorbed into the Hollywood system. They both brought considerable pedigree to their relationship as he had been responsible for revitalizing Shakespeare in cinema with highly acclaimed adaptations of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996), while she was a Merchant Ivory star with Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993). Not surprisingly, they appeared in several films together, most notably Peter’s Friends (1992), the aforementioned Much Ado and my personal favorite, the psychological thriller Dead Again (1991), before divorcing in 1995.
Dead Again was Branagh and Thompson’s brief dalliance with Hollywood, but on their terms. It is a modest neo-noir indebted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock with Branagh and Thompson playing dual roles in 1940s flashbacks and also present day. This film is often forgotten in their respective filmographies, which is a shame as it features a smartly written screenplay by Scott Frank and excellent performances from not just the lead actors, but the entire cast. The end result is a clever and engaging thriller.
Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) is an ex-cop turned private investigator that specializes in missing persons cases. He’s doing nickel and dime jobs when asked to do a favor for a priest that took him in at Saint Audrey’s Home for Boys when he was quite young. A woman (Emma Thompson) showed up one day unable to speak and suffers from amnesia as well as horrible nightmares that take place in the 1940s where a famous composer by the name of Roman Strauss (Branagh) is convicted and sentenced to death for killing his wife Margaret (Thompson) with a pair of scissors. Roman professes his innocence, claiming a thief killed his wife, but his alibi doesn’t hold up and evidence points towards his guilt.
Branagh films these flashbacks in rich, atmospheric black and white in an obvious homage to classic film noir, complete with the ominous use of shadows, like when Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), the reporter that covered the murder trial, visits Roman on death row. These sequences really allow Branagh to ramp up the style and have a bit of fun. Andy Garcia has a plum supporting role as a disheveled, alcoholic reporter that has been spinning his wheels since World War II ended. The actor has his character’s look down cold with the rumpled clothes and unshaven (yet still handsome) appearance, but wisely doesn’t go over-the-top as would be the temptation for a drunken burn out like Baker.
Mike is enlisted to find out who this mysterious woman is and he’s immediately taken with her beauty (Thompson at arguably the height of her loveliness). After one look at the deplorable conditions of County Hospital, he decides to take her home. Branagh and Thompson are good in these initial scenes together as he plays Mike as a nice guy who nervously talks incessantly while she adopts a timid, fragile stance as her character is at the mercy of the world. There’s definitely a spark of attraction between Mike and this woman, which is enhanced by the chemistry between the two actors. After doing some digging, he finds out that Roman and Margaret were actual people and that she was murdered and he was executed for the crime.
The next day, a hypnotist cum antiques dealer by the name of Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi) shows up at Mike’s door claiming that he can help the woman figure out her identity. Derek Jacobi has a delicious role as a hypnotist who is a bit of an opportunist, putting people under not only to help them, but to also find out if they have any valuable knick-knacks that he can pilfer. Mike is dubious that Franklyn can help her, but goes along with the sessions. Once under hypnosis, she recounts how Roman and Margaret met and fell in love. As the film progresses, Mike tries to figure out how these recollections from the past inform the present. Is this mystery woman somehow the reincarnation of Margaret Strauss? Was he Roman? Will history repeat itself?
Early on in the film, Emma Thompson relies on her expressive eyes and facial features to convey the extreme emotions her character experiences. In doing so, she not only gains Mike’s sympathies, but also ours. Once her character is able to talk, the actress brings even more charm to the role as abundantly evident in the scene where Mike makes dinner for her character. If we haven’t become fully invested in her character’s plight then this moment seals the deal.
Kenneth Branagh does a fine job essaying a stereotypical cinematic gumshoe of the West Coast variety. He certainly doesn’t do anything to rise up in the pantheon of such characters and it looks like he’s having more fun in the flashbacks playing a famous German composer jealous that a rumpled reporter shows romantic interest in his wife. These sequences allow Branagh to act more theatrical and pretend like he’s in a classic Hollywood movie.
Being involved in real life certainly helps Branagh and Thompson’s on-screen chemistry, which is fantastic, but not every real-life couple have it so this was a bit of a gamble for them to take. Fortunately, it pays off. The looks that the two of them exchange throughout the film are warm and feel genuine. Looking back now, it’s hard not to feel a few pangs of nostalgia looking at an apparently happy couple that are no longer together.
Also of note is Robin Williams playing a small, but memorable role as a disgraced ex-psychiatrist working at a local convenience store dispensing advice to Mike. It’s a semi-serious role that saw the famous funnyman cracking jokes, but with the bitter edge of someone burnt out from life. The normally solid Wayne Knight adopts a distracting lisp/whistle through his teeth when he talks that seems like a bit much and an obvious attempt to make his character more colorful than it really is.
After his directorial debut with Henry V, Kenneth Branagh was keen to film an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. After a booking in Australia fell though, Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson, found themselves in Los Angeles performing Shakespeare’s King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the theater troupe he had founded in 1987. It happened to coincide with the announcing of the Academy Award nominations. Henry V was the recipient of several, including Branagh for Best Actor and Direction. This caught the attention of Hollywood and he was approached by several studios keen to work with him. However, they only knew him from Henry V and weren’t interested in his new project. He started getting screenplays for art films, biopics, and war films: “All the Vietnam pictures that never got made,” he remembers. None of them appealed to him.
Then, producer Lindsay Doran sent him Scott Frank’s script for Dead Again. She had commissioned the script from the writer while at Paramount Pictures in 1986. She subsequently moved to Sydney Pollack’s production company where, with Frank’s help, began looking for a director. She saw Henry V and felt that Branagh was the right person for the job. When he read Frank’s script, Branagh was blown away by it. The script made him think of Alfred Hitchcock films like Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) and Dial M for Murder (1954) – motion pictures that made big impressions on him when he was younger. He felt that Frank’s work had “all the classic ingredients of a mystery thriller on a noir-ish level. It was a good yarn, underneath which it touched lightly on the sense of ‘Are we meant to be with people in relationships that we resolve from lifetime to lifetime?’” Branagh immediately pictured Derek Jacobi as the antiques dealer and Thompson as the mystery woman with no memory. However, Doran initially only wanted him to direct, but he was also wanted to act opposite his wife with them playing dual roles that were originally intended for four different actors. In addition, he also wanted to cast Jacobi and a few key crew members from Henry V to work on it. The studio agreed, but only if the film had a couple of well-known American actors in it.
Branagh worked hard to adopt an American accent, spending hours listening to tapes and spending time with Frank. “I knew I had to deliver more than just a collection of representative sounds. Vocal cadences and rhythms had to be believable.” He also worked on his character’s body language by observing people walking around in L.A. and then going into shopping malls and trying out what he learned. Thompson found her role challenging because “if you’ve lost your memory you’ve lost your power to relate to anything at all … memories are not available to you, and you find you have very little to say … The principle thing you discover is it produces intense loneliness.”
Dead Again received positive to mixed notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “This film is made of guignol setting and mood, music and bold stylized camera angles, coincidence and shock, melodrama and romance. And it is also suffused with a strange, infectious humor; Branagh plays it dead seriously, but sees that it is funny.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Branagh doesn’t exactly transform the absurdities of the story into great art, which was probably never his intention. Instead he recognizes them without condescension, turning out a most enjoyable and knowing homage to a kind of fiction that, though dead, keeps coming back.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “There’s little passion behind the pyrotechnics: you never quite shake the feeling that you’re watching a talented cast playing an elaborate game of Let’s Pretend. Still, be grateful for the genuine amusement Dead Again supplies. It may be cotton candy, but it’s well spun.”
Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The two lead performers triumph during the flashback sequences, which are really the heart of the film … Thompson and Branagh don’t do a parody of classic Hollywood acting so much as an homage to it. They made me appreciate the focus of the great old stars, the way they could define, with intoxicating clarity, the emotions on which a scene spun.” However, USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Thanks in part to some fundamental miscasting, this convoluted whodunit (half-period, half-contemporary) is a misconceived attempt to establish just-plain-folks credentials.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley found the film, “a campy Gothic melodrama about one couple’s ongoing hassle with bad karma … this overwrought and overly facile look at accounts payable in the afterlife.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank creates an intriguing murder mystery as we wonder if Roman really killed Margaret in the past and who is Thompson’s amnesiac character in the present? Both storylines dovetail rather nicely at the film’s exciting climax, which goes off the rails a bit as Branagh’s flair for theatrics gets the better of him. Frank has gone on to become one of the best, most consistent writers working in Hollywood and while Dead Again is not a major work, it doesn’t try to be. The film is a clever cinematic equivalent of a page turner – entertainingly executed by Branagh and company.
Arnold, Gary. “Ken and Emma Put Their Act Together.” Washington Times. August 21, 1991.
Black, Kent. “Married … With Chutzpah.” Los Angeles Times. August 18, 1991.
Koltnow, Barry. “Irish Actor/Director Aims at America with Dual Role in Dead Again.” Orange County Register. August 21, 1991.
Lacey, Liam. “No Longer A ‘Classical’ Person.” Globe and Mail. August 19, 1991.
Portman, Jamie. “Irish-Born Actor at Home as Los Angeles Detective.” Ottawa Citizen. August 23, 1991.
Weber, Bruce. “From Shakespeare to Hollywood.” The New York Times. August 18, 1991.