Dead Again

Dead Again (1991)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia
Extras: Two Audio Commentaries, Theatrical Trailer

While many performers in the entertainment industry face stereotyping or pigeonholing (ask any child star!), there are some who are able to move between genres and projects with ease. One such person is director/actor Kenneth Branagh. While he made a name for himself with his Shakepearean projects such as "Henry V" and "Hamlet", he has also shown a desire to make films from other genres, such as "Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein" and "Dead Again", which is now available on DVD from Paramount. Branagh shows extra dexterity in "Dead Again", by not only directing, but also by playing two roles in the film. "Dead Again" is a shining example of how good a thriller can be when it’s made by talented people who don’t want to "talk down" to their audience.

"Dead Again" opens with the introduction of "Grace" (Emma Thompson), a mute woman with amnesia, who has been taken in by an orphanage. Grace suffers from intense nightmares, but can’t articulate what they mean. The director of the orphanage calls in private detective Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) to aid in discovering who Grace is.
Mike has his friend Pete (Wayne Knight), run a picture of Grace in the newspaper to see if anyone comes forward to help. Mr. Madison (Derek Jacobi) arrives at Mike’s apartment to offer his assistance. Madison is a hypnotist (and antique dealer) who claims that he can hypnotize Grace and discover the secrets of her past. However, once Grace is hypnotized, she reveals facts not about her life, but about the life of a woman named Margaret Strauss…from the year 1948!

Margaret (also played by Emma Thompson) was a cellist, who fell in love and married composer Roman Strauss (played by Kenneth Branagh). Roman and Margaret had a whirlwind romance, but then they fell on hard times. When Margaret was found murdered, Roman was convicted and executed for the crime. As Grace, discusses more about the turbulent life of Roman and Margaret, she regains her ability to speak and begins to find herself attracted to Mike. But, what parallels are there between Grace/Mike in the present and Margaret/Roman in the past? Is Mike the reincarnation of Roman and is he destined to repeat Roman’s actions and kill Grace? As the storylines from the past and the present intertwine, the film races towards a very exciting conclusion.

The plot synopsis of "Dead Again" shows that writer Scott Frank was dealing with many themes — reincarnation, karma, murder, romance, hypnotism, amnesia — and was able, along with director Branagh, to gel them into a very satisfying film. While it’s challenging to write a thorough synonpsis of the film, as it contains so many elements, "Dead Again" is never confusing and gives itself plenty of time to let the story unfold. Not so much a "whoudunit", the real question in "Dead Again" pertains to, is history going to repeat itself and leave us with another dead body? The film leaves the audience guessing up until the very end. Incidentally, it could be argued that the ending was influenced by Argento’s "Tenebre", but I won’t get into that here.

Branagh expertly uses the genre convention of having the past being presented in black and white to help tell the story. The scenes from the past and present are edited together very nicely (reminiscent of the book version of Stephen King’s "It".), and as the film progresses, begin to parallel each other. Frank’s ingenious script offers us the four main protagonists, and then throws in a handful of peripheral characters, who may or may not have anything to do with the murder. Another thing that makes the "Dead Again" script work is that most of the characters are very likable. It’s not until the last reel that a true "villain" is revealed. Mike and Grace, escpecially, are characters who are believable and interesting. While the viewer is drawn into the film by the suspenseful plot, the characters make the film a sheer pleasure to watch.

Along with the excellent story, "Dead Again" offers some incredible acting. While many won’t agree with this statement, I find the acting in "Dead Again" to be the most convincing that I’ve ever seen in a film. Branagh’s turn as both Church and Strauss is simply breattaking. See the scene where Mike first brings Grace to his apartment. As she is mute, Mike chatters incessantly for about five minutes to fill in any silences. To me, this scene comes across as incredibly realistic and I felt as if I were intruding upon someone’s private life. That’s what great acting should be — not yelling and hand gestures. Also, the American accent that Branagh uses for the Church character is impressive. Emma Thompson also does very well in her dual roles. It’s great how the film juxtaposes the mousy fright that Grace exhibits to the romantic bravura of Margaret, and Thompson plays both roles with aplomb. Derek Jacobi is very good as Madison, showing a very whimsical and humorous side. Robin Williams has an extended cameo in the film as a psychologist turned grocer. This gruff and rude character is a different look for Williams and he brings humor and many clues to the film.

Paramount has brought us a very nice version of "Dead Again" with their new DVD release. The film is presented in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. This digital transfer gives us a picture which is very crisp and clear. When compared to Paramount’s previous laserdisc release, the differences are very clear. The DVD of "Dead Again" does a fine job of presenting both the color and black and white portions of the film, although there is some slight grain present during the black and white sequences. The color sections show excellent color balancing. As Branagh shot "Dead Again" in a very heightened, noir style, there are many shadows, and the blackness of the shadows looks good on this DVD, offering a nice contrast to the colors in these shots. The framing of the film appears to be accurate, and there is no obvious artifacting.

The audio on the "Dead Again" DVD is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and sounds very nice. One of the centerpieces of "Dead Again" is the excellent score by Patrick Doyle, and the music becomes a living, breathing character thanks to the <$DS,Dolby Surround> Sound. Also, the sound effects are well mixed into the rear speakers. However, the music and sound effects do not drown out or distort in any way the all important dialogue, which is always audible and intelligible.

The "Dead Again" DVD offers two audio commentaries. The first features director/actor Kenneth Branagh. Branagh does a good job of talking non-stop throughout the film. He gives many insights into how the film was shot and how Scott Frank’s script was adapted to the screen. Branagh speaks pleasantly about now ex-wife Emma Thompson. However, there are times when Branagh seems to be condescending to the material. He says the word "noir" about 500 times, and constantly refers to "Dead Again" as "this kind of film." He’s obviously proud of the piece and understands that he was responsible for making a classy thriller, but it doesn’t seem to have the importance of his Shakespearean works, which is sad. I think that any director would be proud to have "Dead Again" on their resume.

This is not the case with the second commentary, which features author Scott Frank and producer Lindsay Doran. Both Frank and Doran are very proud of the film and this comes across as they speak. It took them several years to find a director who was right for the project, so they talk about the process of getting the film made. Frank talks about this influences and what motivated him to write the script. Both have interesting stories about the making of the film.

"Dead Again" is an excellent thriller that has come to be one of my personal favorites. The film combines a clever story with above average acting and directing to form a very solid package. The Paramount DVD brings us a pristine transfer of the film, with an nice audio and video presentation. Be sure to check out "Dead Again", before it’s "Out Of Print Again."