It was 1991, my dad was visiting, and he let me pick the movie. He didn’t know what a surprise he was in for.
When I said Dead Again, he rolled his eyes so much I thought they’d come out of his head. He was positive he was about to be dragged to some “slasher flick”, as he put it.
Two hours later, he apologized.
I don’t know what possessed Sir Kenneth Branagh to follow up his Shakespearean epic, Henry V, with a Hitchcockian thriller about reincarnation. I still don’t know. But this was also the guy with the moxie to publish his autobiography at the age of 30. I’m content in the assumption that his ways are not given to be known by us mere mortals.
Everything about Dead Again is unexpected. From the title that almost put off my dad, to actors you associate with the Royal Shakespeare company. Almost everything is a surprise. The performances are perhaps the one predictable aspect. From the likes of Branagh, Dame Emma Thompson, and Sir Derek Jacobi, you don’t expect less than stellar work, and they deliver. From the director’s chair, Branagh was throwing down choices we now associate with him as trademarks—those continuous, often circular shots that can take all day to film. Scott Frank wrote the screenplay, and it’s no surprise that he went on to write such other dark thrillers as Malice and Minority Report.
The story is a classic one of love, betrayal, murder, and revenge. The twist is that the characters don’t know these things had happened to them, because they happened in past lives. A woman with amnesia (Thompson) crosses the path of private investigator Mike Church (Branagh). Since she doesn’t know her own name, he gives her the name Grace. With the help of hypnotist Franklyn Madsen (Jacobi), they discover that her amnesia has to do with past events—much further in the past than they had expected. Apparently, in 1949, a composer named Roman Strauss (also Branagh) murdered his wife Margaret (also Thompson) by fatally stabbing her with a pair of scissors.
Mike and Grace work to cure her amnesia in the present by solving the mystery in the past. Along the way, they fall in love. “This is just like Roman and Margaret”, says Grace. Mike keeps insisting, “I’m not Roman”. Mike had initially scoffed at the idea of past lives, but as the Strauss’s story is told (through beautifully shot black and white flashbacks), they both begin to believe. Apparently, the black and white sequences were done that way as an afterthought. It works well, and the back-and-forth from colour to black and white, present to past, is a gorgeous display. Branagh is a director who chews the scenery to its best advantage. Patrick Doyle’s score is dark, and swirls around you, adding to the tension. Between Patrick Doyle and Danny Elfman, my D&D games in the nineties had terrific soundtracks.
Perhaps my favourite surprise in the film is the unexpected appearance of Robin Williams. Williams plays the entirely non-comedic role of shrink turned stock boy “Cozy” Carlisle, who crosses Mike’s path early in the film. After the first session of hypnosis and the introduction of the past lives theory, Mike decides they need a second opinion. He turns to Carlisle. It was a role I wasn’t accustomed to seeing Williams play, certainly not back then. Carlisle is a small gem of a character, bitter, raw, and cynical, and a beautiful early demonstration that there was more to Williams than comedy. Apparently, he insisted his name be left out of the opening credits. He was concerned that his association with comedies might misrepresent the film. I think that people who barely retain the film at all still remember his advice to Mike—“A person’s either a smoker or a non-smoker. There’s no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you’re a non-smoker, you’ll know.”
Sir Derek Jacobi is, of course, always wonderful. And I always feel like he had terrific fun making this movie, and getting to play outside his usual type. At first, nothing is surprising. He’s a hypnotist and antiques dealer. He’s cuddly, tweedy, and soft-spoken. We first get a glimpse of his shady side when we discover that he is using his sessions with hypnosis clients as a way to track down antiques. When he regresses a woman to a little girl who remembers the furniture in President Roosevelt’s office quite clearly, the woman he snaps awake is told to remember nothing. She leaves his shop free of “silly chocolate cravings,” and he has a lead on a new bit of potential merchandise. Toward the end of the film, Jacobi gets to use that stutter with which fans of I, Claudius are so very familiar. I don’t know if he had had too many opportunities to play the heavy at that point in his career. He’s terribly good at it.
I’m a particular fan of fight scenes in film and theatre. Okay, the one in which this movie culminates does end on a slightly ridiculous note (impaled on conveniently located, extra-large scissors? Really?), but up to that point, I love it. The best fight scenes are ones that help to tell the story, and this one does so perfectly. Two guys, neither of whom has any particular training in martial arts, are fighting for their lives. The choreography is sort of flailing, and if they used stuntmen, I couldn’t tell. It’s a scrappy and gritty sequence for two actors whose history with combat probably involves mostly swords. With the exception of the bit where Jacobi accidentally clocked his head on a counter and got a concussion, I imagine they had enormous fun rehearsing this.
Andy Garcia rounds out the supporting cast, along with Wayne Knight, before Jurassic Park and Seinfeld made him instantly recognizable as “that guy who was in that thing”. It’s probably my favourite role of Garcia’s. His portrayal of the reporter Gray Baker is smooth and sexy, with just the right amount of sleaze. He not only tries to woo Margaret’s affections from her husband but is the convicted husband’s last visitor before Roman is executed. Roman tells him, “this is all far from over”. He’s right about that.
There’s also a really fun special effect that was not only impressive at the time, but works really well as an anti-smoking ad. Nowadays, someone taking a drag off a cigarette through their tracheostomy would be done digitally. I don’t know how they pulled it off in 1991, but just thinking about it even now makes my flesh crawl. I’m guessing at least a couple of people quit as the result of this film.
It’s always been a bit of a bummer to me, upon rewatches, to remember that Branagh and Thompson broke up a few years after this. As you watch Dead Again, you are constantly reminded that Emma Thompson is gorgeous, thank you very much. Which, of course, she is. But there are easily half a dozen mentions in the screenplay about how beautiful she is. And maybe it’s just me, but I like it when less conventional beauty such as Thompson’s is taken as a matter of fact by a Hollywood production.
Add to the mix a teenage boy with a stutter and a grudge, and a very important anklet (I am embarrassed to admit how many boyfriends were forced to gift me with ankle bracelets because of this movie), and you’ve got edge-of-your-seat magic. Come to think of it; I’m pretty sure this movie was also where I first learned about Claddagh rings, and how you were supposed to wear them. Did it do poorly because it snuck up on people the way it did? Kenneth Branagh reinvented Shakespeare for the modern age, and I thank him for it. But never let it be said that the man wasn’t eclectic in his ambitions. And if absolutely nothing else, I think this movie enhanced my street cred when it came to recommending movies to my dad.