The Film: Dead Again (1991)

The Principals: Kenneth Branagh (directing and starring),  Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight

The Premise: A mysterious young woman (Thompson), missing her voice and her memories, winds up at a boy’s orphanage. Every night, she wakes up screaming.   Detective Mike Church (Branagh) agrees to take on the case and dubs her Grace, reluctantly bringing her to stay with him so she doesn’t have to suffer the indignities of a mental ward.

He puts an advertisement in the paper, which brings him the assistance of a posh hypnotist (Jacobi).    One session brings out a disturbing truth: Grace possesses the memories of a pianist named Margaret, who was brutally murdered in 1947 by her husband, Roman.

Church is skeptical, believing her “past life” to be a mere concoction of LIFE Magazines.   But he’s reassured by a disgraced psychologist (Williams), who assures him we all have past lives embedded in our psyche. Whether it’s true or not, it’s the key to unlocking Grace’s true identity. Eventually, Church is persuaded to go under himself — and wouldn’t you know it, those memories fit neatly into hers!  But is tragedy destined to repeat itself?

Is It Good: It’s bombastic and breathy, but it’s enjoyable.   Branagh and Thompson were a lovely, fiery couple onscreen once, and they were both at their most classical and sexy in the 1990s.  They were the pin-ups for the English majors.

The plot is definitely a little contrived and there are a few gaps (Just what exactly does go on in the cell between Roman and Gray Baker? What becomes of that whole business with the stolen scissors?).  Patrick Doyle’s score almost drowns out the dialogue and the action, but it’s fun. It doesn’t shy away from its karmic, new agey plotline.  It believes in it wholeheartedly and doesn’t try to explain it away as coincidence or hysteria.   It’s just reincarnation, and everyone believes in it, which moves the plot along quite briskly.

Is It Worth A Look: Yes. It’s a good movie for a lazy evening, sort of a poor man’s The Fountain.  As Branagh basks in Thor glory, it’s worth going back and seeing his lush pieces of the 1990s. He’s a man who should have directed more, I think, because his grasp of cinema history is pretty evident.   Dead Again is full of visual, musical, and locational nods to classic film noir, and the heightened atmosphere and wide-eyed performances seem better suited for 1947 than 1991.   I imagine a lot of people might watch this and dismiss it as heavy handed, a man desperate to turn everything into passionate Elizabethan poetry, but it’s not that at all.  Branagh knew what tone he wanted, and just gunned for it.   Dead Alive hit the right retro notes, and if Thor is any indication, he’s managed to channel his flair for histrionics into appropriate channels.  Let’s hand him some more thrillers, or a Western, and see what he does! He might have some really brilliant homages up his sleeve.

Random Anecdotes: The black and white sequences were a spontaneous post-production decision, and one that devastated the costumers and set designers, as they had designed everything for color.