Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991) is a superior thriller that never got the attention it should have—probably as a result of being released the same year as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, which stole all the thriller thunder there was. An imperfect film that just misses a chance at greatness, Dead Again aims for Hitchcock, but comes nearer Brian De Palma. Still, it’s good De Palma and certainly doesn’t lack for style. I did notice while watching it again for this review that it does tip its hand rather sooner than it needed to, but that’s easier spotted when you know where the story is going.
When I first saw Dead Again on its original release, my major complaint with the film—apart from what still strikes me as a missed opportunity concerning the ending—centered around Kenneth Branagh directing Kenneth Branagh. In many ways, he seemed to be the living embodiment of Woody Allen’s claim in Stardust Memories (1981): The only problem he had with directing himself was resisting giving himself “too many extreme closeups.” That’s still true to some extent, though I noticed that this is more evident in the black-and-white flashback scenes where Branagh plays the composer Roman Strauss than in the straight part of the narrative where he plays detective Mike Church, so I’m willing to concede that this could be a stylistic decision to make the flashbacks more resemble the glamorous movie-star approach of the 1940s. It’s certainly nowhere near as obvious in the modern scenes—where if anything is distracting it’s Branagh’s somewhat forced American accent.
As a stylish thriller, Dead Again is hard to beat. The quasi-hardboiled detective scenario of the modern story works nicely as counterpoint to the film-noir flavor of the flashbacks. The story line—about a detective (Branagh) trying to discover the identity of an amnesiac woman (Emma Thompson) plagued by dreams of what may be a past life—is cleverly thought out. It also makes for a pleasantly romantic teaming for Branagh and then-wife Thompson. The story even boasts a nice twist—and a plausible explanation for why history seems to be repeating itself, even if that explanation has to be spelled out by Robin Williams (blessedly playing it straight) as a former psychiatrist. If you can buy the premise—and it’s easy to do while the film is running—it hangs together pretty well.
Left on that level, Dead Again is fine. For that matter, I smile every time I see the film pause in its climactic scene to interject a wonderfully theatrical bit of comedy. At the same time, I also look at the ending and realize how close it comes to creating a truly startling finale—and how Branagh and screenwriter Scott Frank (The Lookout) let it slip through their fingers. The chance was there for a true collision of past and present. If they’d only worked out a way to intercut the actual resolutions to both stories so that they climaxed at one time in a seamless flow, Dead Again would have become a true masterpiece instead of a solid thriller. But make no mistake, it is a solid thriller.