Robin’s Underrated Gems: Dead Again (1991)


We recently recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast on movies where actors played multiple roles and one of our most unusual selections was Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing dual roles in the 1991 psychological thriller, Dead Again. At the time this film was released, Branagh had already made his name on the British stage and garnered worldwide acclaim for his performance in the 1989 screen version of Henry V, which also happened to be his directorial debut. The majority of Branagh’s directorial efforts have been screen adaptations of Shakespeare, which is why it seemed unusual that his first Hollywood production would be a very Hitchcockian one. Branagh decided to direct a spec script from a then-unknown writer named Scott Frank and went even further against the grain by playing the dual role of an American and a German. Dead Again is a decidedly old-fashioned piece of cinema which functions as a psychological thriller, a romance and a neo-noir, but also happens to offer a unique twist on all these different genres. On the surface, the story is completely ridiculous and the final result could have been laughably bad if it were not in such skilled and capable hands. Dead Again works well because the filmmakers are not afraid to pull out all the stops and embrace the over-the-top absurdity of the material and many of its most memorable scenes are presented in grand, operatic fashion. It takes itself seriously enough to work as a thriller, but still has a very smart sense of humour about itself and the end result is tremendously entertaining.

The plot of Dead Again is built around two parallel stories and the film’s opening credit sequence does an effective job at telling its first story through a montage of news clippings. In 1949 Los Angeles, a noted German composer named Roman Strauss (Kenneth Branagh) is convicted of murdering his British pianist wife, Margaret (Emma Thompson), by stabbing her with a pair of scissors. Roman maintains his innocence, but he is still sentenced to death and executed for the crime. The story then cuts to the present day where it’s revealed that a mysterious woman (Thompson again) is having vivid nightmares about this story. She is a mute amnesiac known only as “Grace” and, of course, she bears a striking resemblance to Margaret Strauss. A Catholic orphanage has been sheltering Grace, but with no clue to her true identity, they decide to hire a private investigator named Mike Church (Branagh again) to take care of Grace and find who she really is. Of course, he bears a striking resemblance to Roman Strauss. After publishing Grace’s picture in the paper, Mike draws the attention of a hypnotist named Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), who believes that a past life regression might help Grace recovery her memories. During a hypnosis session, Grace once again starts having flashbacks to the story of Roman and Margaret Strauss. It was always believed that Roman killed his wife in a jealous rage because he believed she was having an affair with a reporter named Gray Baker (Andy Garcia). However, Grace’s visions eventually reveal that the actual truth was a lot more complex.

Dead Again frequently cuts back-and-forth between the 1949 story involving Roman and Margaret, and the modern-day story involving Mike and Grace, who gradually become attracted to each other while attempting to unravel the mystery. Grace begins to believe that she is the modern-day reincarnation of Margaret, but also becomes perturbed by the possibility that Mike may be the reincarnation of Roman and that history could potentially repeat itself. The flashback scenes in Dead Again are filmed in black-and-white and do a very effective job at recreating the romantic film noir thrillers of Hollywood’s past. However, Branagh did not always intend them to be this way. He originally filmed the entire movie in colour, but after test screenings, he became concerned that audiences would become confused about seeing the two lead actors in multiple roles and decided to convert the flashback sequences to black and white. As a stylistic choice, it works beautifully, but one of the best things about Dead Again is that in spite of its very complicated story, it never becomes confusing. Even though the movie is constantly cutting back and forth between different time periods and showcasing the actors in dual roles, the viewer can always follow what’s going on. The decision for Branagh and Thompson to sport American accents while playing Mike and Grace was probably done out of necessity, but their accents are flawless and they both do a solid job of creating two distinct characters. Given that they were a very prominent real-life couple at the time, they obviously have a lot of chemistry together and make the parallel love stories work. While the ultra-cynical Mike Church may not be your typical Kenneth Branagh character, he’s frequently hilarious in the role, particularly during this sequence involving a man claiming to be Grace’s long-lost fiancee.

A lot of the film’s themes about past lives, karma and reincarnation are conveyed through a bizarre character named Cozy Carlisle, a disgraced-psychiatrist-turned-supermarket-butcher. This is a role that requires a lot of potentially dry exposition, but the film counters this with the very offbeat casting of Robin Williams, who makes the material entertaining with one of his more atypical performances. Branagh has a lot fun with these themes, as some of his minor supporting actors also play dual roles in both the past and present stories, which you may not even notice on a first viewing. While Branagh is clearly paying tribute to the works of Hitchcock, he provides enough neat stylistic touches to give Dead Again an identity of its own and some of his best sequences are shot in long unbroken takes. Scott Frank’s screenplay is undeniably contrived, but it is pretty well-constructed and builds to its twists and revelations quite nicely. As I stated before, the storyline for Dead Again is pretty absurd on the surface, but the filmmakers are well aware of that and are not afraid to have fun with the material. The most ridiculously over-the-top sequence is definitely the finale, which could best be described as a cross between Hitchcock and Dario Argento. However, because Dead Again has done such a great job at establishing its operatic atmosphere, the ending works very well and fits perfectly with the tone of the film. Even though Dead Again opened to mostly positive reviews and fairly good business at the box office, it has pretty much faded from memory and is somewhat forgotten today, which is a shame. Given that The Artist captured an Academy Award for “Best Picture” last year, recreating the cinema of yesteryear is definitely in vogue these days. However, what Dead Again accomplishes is even more impressive because while it uses the cinema of yesteryear as a catalyst for its narrative, it still tells a strong enough story for the whole thing to work beautifully as a standalone film.

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