Dead Again [DVD]
Screenplay : Scott Frank
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Kenneth Branagh (Mike Church / Roman Strauss), Emma Thompson (Amanda "Grace" Sharp / Margaret Strauss), Andy Garcia (Gray Baker), Derek Jacobi (Franklyn Madison), Wayne Knight (Pete Dugan), Lois Hall (Sister Constance), Richard Easton (Father Timothy), Jo Anderson (Sister Madeleine / Starlet), Robin Williams (Dr. Cozy Carlisle)
With a sudden crash of shrieking strings, the word "MURDER" from a yellowing newspaper headline quickly fills the screen then fades away, making clear from its opening moments exactly what Kenneth Branagh's reincarnation thriller "Dead Again" is all about. The opening credits sequence, with its bits of old newspaper stories and thundering score by Patrick Doyle, quickly establishes both the story and the tone.
Outlandish and theatrical, "Dead Again" is an engaging piece of entertainment, a murder-mystery that intertwines two stories, one that takes place in 1948 and one that takes place in 1991. The earlier story concerns Roman Strauss (Kenneth Branaugh), a flamboyant German composer who falls in love with and marries a celebrated pianist named Margaret (Emma Thompson).
When the film opens in moody black and white, Roman is moments from his execution, having been convicted of murdering Margaret by stabbing her with a pair of shearing scissors. He is being interviewed one last time by reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), a man with whom Roman suspected his wife was having an affair. Before leaving, Roman whispers something in Gray's ear. Did he finally confess?
The film then moves into 1991 and into color, where an apparently mute woman with amnesia (also played by Emma Thompson) is haunted by horrifying nightmares about Roman and Margaret, even though she doesn't know who they are. A decent-hearted, hard-boiled detective named Mike Church (also played by Branagh) takes on her case. He gives her the temporary name of Grace and tryies to find out who she is and why she is obsessed with these horrible dreams.
An eccentric British hypnotist named Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi) appears one day and offers his services. At first, Mike is skeptical, but once under hypnosis, Grace, the woman with no memory or voice, can recall aloud with startling clarity the events of Margaret and Roman's life. The suggestion is that she is Margaret reincarnated in her next life, and soon she begins to suspect that Mike is Roman reincarnated. And, if their previous lives together ended in gruesome violence, does that mean that the same thing will be repeated in this life?
Screenwriter Frank Scott ("Out of Sight") deftly weaves together these two narratives, cutting back and forth between events of Roman and Margaret's life and the events of Mike and Grace's. He allows the stories to unfold slowly, giving us bits and pieces, but never the whole puzzle. He allows us to think we know what's happening; in fact, he makes some aspects of the narrative appear to be painfully obvious, lulling you into a false sense of mastery right before he pulls the rug out from under you. The last 20 minutes of "Dead Again" are rich with sudden plot twists and unexpected revelations, all of which are plausible and unpredictable.
When he made this film, director Kenneth Branagh was riding the critical success of his debut film, a dark, bloody adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V" (1989). He was still something of an unknown, especially outside of the art film circuit, so "Dead Again" represented for him a move into the mainstream. However, "Dead Again" is not a typical studio product. Branagh is a director with energy and style. He isn't ashamed to be theatrical, and material of this sort simply demands theatricality. After all, it's based on the idea that the audience will go along with the idea of reincarnation and the convenient ability to bring out secrets of the long-forgotten past through hypnosis.
The strength of "Dead Again" is Branaugh's willingness and success in establishing a consistent tone that makes room for such ideas without making them seem silly or forced. He knows his film language, and he borrows liberally from the work of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Fritz Lang. The film has an air of theatricality and exaggeration, like something that would have been made 50 years ago, yet it is grounded enough in mundane reality to keep at least one foot on the floor. Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti makes good use of light and shadow, giving it something of a film noir feeling, especially in the black-and-white sequences. Branagh's symbolic use of scissors sometimes feels like a tad much (they are, literally, everywhere), but this is a film that can handle a bit of excess in the right places.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Languages: English, French
Extras: Audio commentary by director Kenneth Branagh; audio commentary by producer Lindsay Doran and screenwriter Scott Frank; original theatrical trailer
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Video: The anamorphic widescreen transfer is very nice. "Dead Again" is a film heavily influenced by the look of film noir, so there is great deal of odd lighting and creative use of shadows. The transfer handles all of these elements well, giving us solid color saturation and deep blacks with fine shadow detail. There was no digital artifacting, and the source print appears to have been clean and free of blemishes.
Audio: Likewise, the new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack does its job well. Patrick Doyle's high-pitched, intentionally melodramatic score is given prominence here, and it sounds excellent. There are also several scenes that take place during thunderstorms (go figure), and the low frequency sound effects are startlingly lifelike.
Extras: The disc comes with two separate audio commentaries, one by screenwriter Scott Frank and producer Lindsay Doran, and the second by director-star Kenneth Branagh. Both commentaries are informative and interesting; listening to Branagh speak in his native English accent gives one a newfound respect for the seamless American accent he maintains throughout the film. Branagh is particularly clear in explaining his filmmaking techniques and the tone he was trying to achieve in the film, and perhaps because he knew Frank would be contributing a commentary as well, he gives the screenwriter a great deal of credit. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer.
©2000 James Kendrick