Actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh followed up Henry V, his acclaimed screen adaptation of his London stage production, with abrupt change-of-pace. Dead Again (1991) is a stylish thriller that draws on Alfred Hitchcock, classic film noir, and gothic shockers.
Sporting an exaggerated American accent, Branagh stars as L.A. private eye Mike Church, a hard-boiled but soft-hearted detective who takes on the case of a mysterious amnesiac (Emma Thompson). With the help of an offbeat furniture dealer and part time hypnotist (Derek Jabobi), Grace (as Mike has named her) dredges up her hidden memories.
Little do they realize that her recollections are of a past life in LA’s recent history, and as she recounts the story of a concert pianist (also played by Thompson) and a German composer and conductor (Branagh) who fall in love and marry, only to end with a notorious murder, events of the present begin to mirror the past, as if fate were pulling the two into fatal replay of history.
You have to take the reincarnation suggestion on faith. The film certainly does, embracing it with gusto. Even the set design revels in Gothic flair, like the violent, menacing sculptures that fill Grace’s apartment. Call in reincarnation noir.
The film is filled with offbeat characters, notably Robin Williams as a psychiatrist who lost his license and takes meeting with Mike in the store’s walk-in freezer. Andy Garcia is a smarmy, seductive newspaper reporter from the flashback who, aged into a present-day walking corpse, delivers what may be the most effective anti-smoking scene in 20th century cinema.
Branagh’s flashy, flourished direction echoes with an array of 40s and 50s classics and near classics (most notably Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Spellbound) and drives the story with an edgy urgency, all the better to distract from some of the sillier elements of the plot. But while this film may not make literal sense in the harsh light of day, in the twilit, shadowy world of classic Hollywood this slyly inventive thriller is bravura bit of old fashion entertainment, done up with modern flair.
Also stars Hanna Schygulla as the conductor’s loyal housekeeper plus Wayne Knight and Campbell Scott.