When it was announced that Kenneth Branagh, the 30-year-old Irish-born actor-director who created the transporting 1989 screen version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, would follow up that film with a Hollywood thriller, I assumed he’d channel his obvious audacity and intelligence into a refined, sophisticated entertainment, a commercial movie with a classical edge. Happily, I was wrong. Dead Again is certainly entertaining — it’s one of the most pleasurable movies I’ve seen this year — yet it never pretends to be more than a farfetched piece of hokum. That’s its charm. The movie isn’t just unpretentious; it’s garishly, thrillingly vulgar. Branagh, working from a script by newcomer Scott Frank, takes the sort of implausible twists and turns that never existed anywhere but in old movies and stitches them together in an ingenious new way. He builds a castle in the air out of Hollywood clichés.
Dead Again is a kind of two-tiered romantic murder mystery set in the present and the past, with both Branagh and his wife, Emma Thompson, appearing in dual roles. In the contemporary sections, Branagh plays cheerful, tough-around-the-edges Los Angeles detective Mike Church, and Thompson is the amnesiac woman he’s been asked to investigate. She’s forgotten everything -her name, her past, even how to talk. (For the sake of convenience, Mike starts calling her Grace.) Yet she keeps having vivid nightmares about a mysterious ’40s couple: Margaret (also played by Thompson), a beautiful concert pianist, and Roman Strauss (Branagh), the wealthy and cultivated German composer-conductor who married her and then, apparently, murdered her with a pair of scissors; the nightmare ends with him being taken to the electric chair.
Mike agrees to let Grace be hypnotized by Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), an eccentric antique-shop owner who happens to be an expert at putting people in trances. When Grace goes under hypnosis, it’s revealed that her nightmare is no fairy tale. There really was a Margaret and Roman Strauss — and, as it turns out, Grace and Mike are their reincarnated spirits.
You heard me: This is the first modern thriller guaranteed to get four stars from Shirley MacLaine. Can Branagh be serious? Yes and no. The plot of Dead Again is like something the Naked Gun people might have come up with had they decided to do a takeoff on ’40s thrillers. The narrative is all blithe, symmetrical happenstance, a series of interlocking contrivances. Yet the reincarnation business allows Branagh to pull off a structural coup. Like Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, he stages an old black-and-white movie — in this case, the story of Margaret and Roman, which is given the choreographed opulence of a ’40s-Hollywood spectacular — and then enters that movie, creating a pop-culture ripple effect between present and past. As the dark truth about the Strauss’ marriage emerges, and as it begins to parallel the romance and foreboding between Mike and Grace, there are echoes of Hitchcock at his most cornball-Freudian (the plot incorporates elements from Spellbound and Rebecca), and Branagh makes devious use of the sort of vintage-thriller motifs (a telltale anklet! A hidden treachery from the past!) that gave Joan Crawford and Bette Davis melodramas their lurid, operatic thrust.
The triumph of Dead Again is that even as it has you giggling at how overwrought these penny-dreadful cliches are, the movie is just tricky enough to get you engrossed in them. It puts the fun back into suspending your disbelief. Branagh knows what a contraption this is, yet he clearly loves the primal pleasures of narrative. The underlying mechanism of Dead Again is the way it nudges our sense of play, withholding just enough information to keep us intrigued, winking at how susceptible we are as moviegoers — at how we’ll go along with anything (even reincarnation) if it means getting to the bottom of the mystery.
The characters are engaging, even if none of them is meant to be deep. As Franklyn, the wily antiques dealer who hypnotizes customers in order to learn the locations of valuable old furniture, Derek Jacobi has an impish nonchalance. Robin Williams, in a small role, is in top form as a defrocked psychiatrist who spouts off on the karma of reincarnation; the fact that he delivers most of these tidbits while sitting in a supermarket meat locker indicates just how tongue-in-cheek Branagh can be. As Mike Church, Branagh at first seems too bland. Short and cute, he’s not movie-star handsome enough to get by on his looks — where is this man’s upper lip? — and it appears he thinks that pretending to be a hard-boiled American Joe is the same thing as impersonating a bad actor. Mike, though, is supposed to be a walking piece of pulp. After a while, I started to warm up to Branagh’s amiably schlocky demeanor.
Emma Thompson has a face that’s magic in front of the camera. Her large, flat cheeks give her a mask-like beauty, but with one quick curlicue of a smile, she becomes a radiant sprite, with hints of naughtiness. The two lead performers triumph during the flashback sequences, which are really the heart of the film. (The contrivances seem more at home there.) Playing the romantic, trusting Margaret and the self-doubting Roman, Thompson and Branagh don’t do a parody of classic Hollywood acting so much as an homage to it. They made me appreciate the focus of the great old stars, the way they could define, with intoxicating clarity, the emotions on which a scene spun.
Dead Again is light, maybe too light. At times, it suggests a Hitchcock movie without the churning, impassioned undercurrents. Yet the film is full of juicy surprises. The best surprise is that by the end, Dead Again accomplishes what few contemporary thrillers do: It truly thrills. Branagh has turned out to be something rare in movies, an artist with a genuine taste for the low-down. He restores your faith in showmanship. A