By Steve Vivona
Many considered Kenneth Branagh's follow-up to his stirring remake of "Henry V" an odd choice. "Dead Again" is as far from the works of the Bard as can be, owing much to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Having said that even Mr. Hitchcock never attempted a thriller where people's past lives come back to haunt them.
In "Dead Again" Branagh plays Mike Church, a private investigator who agrees to help a woman with amnesia find out who she really is. The woman, played by Branagh's ex-wife Emma Thompson, wakes up every night screaming and is unable to speak.
Church places the woman's photo in the paper and is soon contacted by a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) who claims he can regress her back to the moment her troubles began and solve the mystery of who she is.
Under hypnosis the mystery girl remembers events 40 years prior, which the hypnotist deduces is her past life. She recalls Roman and Margaret Strauss (also Thompson and Branagh), two great musicians who fall passionately in love amid post-war Hollywood. Roman, a wonderfully gifted composer, has watched his career sag as Margaret's flourishes. He is prone to fits of jealous rage and suspects Margaret is having an affair with seedy reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia).
Margaret also cannot understand Roman's attachment to his housekeeper (Hanna Shygulla) and her 12-year old son who came over from Germany with him. She accuses the boy of stealing jewelry and wants his mother fired.
Their marital problems intensify and when Margaret is murdered in her bed Roman is the prime suspect. He is eventually put to death for the crime, protesting his innocence all the way to the electric chair.
Mike is incredulous at first but is startled to learn that "Grace" as he calls the woman, has seen him in her dreams. The hypnotist tells the pair that they are Roman and Margaret reincarnated and that destiny is playing itself out again. But will it?
"Dead Again" is a refreshing thriller that provides enough twists to keep things interesting. Branagh and Thompson are great in dual roles. Branagh's gift as an actor is to slip into the skin of any character he plays, and he has a great gift for dialects. He's equally believable as a low-rent L.A. private eye or a sullen German composer, and the same is true for Thompson.
Branagh peppered the cast with members of the "Henry V" troupe most notably Derek Jacobi, who brings class and credibilty to a role that would have suffered in lesser hands. Robin Williams makes a surprise extended cameo as a former psychiatrist now working in a supermarket after a breakdown. Williams gives credence to the mystical mumbo-jumbo Church keeps hearing and he advises him to believe it, or suffer the same fate.
"Dead Again" proved Branagh was more than just the oh-so-serious British firebrand who many predicted would inherit Sir Laurence Olivier's mantle. While it's safe to say he has done that with further adaptations of the Bard such as "Much Ado About Nothing," his four-hour "Hamlet" and a starring role in "Othello," he's stretched himself in other directions as well. He's also had a few missteps, most notably as the villainous Dr. Arliss Loveless in "Wild, Wild West," and his Woody Allen-esque role in "Celebrity." Who can forget his big-budget misfire, "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," a surprising failure.
However "Dead Again" gave Branagh Hollywood credibility and enabled him to etch out a career there thus giving him the resources to do the work most important to him.
Paraount's DVD of "Dead Again" is proof of their improved treatment of catalogue titles. Happily they are realizing the value of supplementary features, and this disc contains not one, but two commentary tracks in addition to the trailer.