Kenneth Branagh revisits the 40s in Dead Again
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Kenneth Branagh,
Emma Thompson, and Derek Jacobi.
Now playing at the Loews Harvard Square.
By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON
KENNETH BRANAGH, the young British actor who was the driving force behind a lush, critically acclaimed version of Henry V, returns to film with Dead Again, a movie about as far from Shakespeare as one can get. Instead of paying homage to the Bard, in Dead Again Branagh pays homage to Hitchcock and the films of the 40s.
Parts of Dead Again play like outtakes from Hitchcock's most famous works: the obsessive son-mother relationship of Psycho, the hypnotism (and Dali artwork) of Spellbound, the antique shop and dizzying tower shots of Vertigo. Memories of a 1948 murder are even shot in black and white in a style that recalls the films of that period.
The Hitchcock tributes garnish a plot chock-full of the most ridiculous elements: reincarnation, hypnotism, Fate with a Capital F, amnesia, and bizarre modern art. Reincarnation stories, as a rule, are pretty silly, and this one is no exception. However, the characters are so compelling and the acting so fine that it is easy to suspend one's disbelief, and by the time some shocking revelations are made, it doesn't matter that the film is about two people reliving past lives.
Branagh plays Mike Church, an LA detective hired to figure out the identity of an amnesic woman (Emma Thompson) who wakes up screaming every night. Aided by Franklin Madison (Derek Jacobi), an antiques dealer and part-time hypnotist who uses his skill to coerce subjects into revealing the locations of vintage furniture, Church and "Grace," as the detective names the woman, discover that they are somehow involved in a murder that took place over 40 years ago.
The murder in question, that of pianist Margaret Strauss, made large-point headlines in 1948. Strauss' husband, Roman, a famous conductor, was convicted of the murder and executed. These sequences are some of the best parts of Dead Again, recalling 40s mystery movies and the tender way black-and-white can sculpt a person's face. Branagh and Thompson play dual roles as the Strausses, a couple who vow to love each other forever, but whose relationship is strained by severe money problems and allegations of an affair. Thompson is luminous as Margaret, and Branagh's Roman is mysterious and seductive, cryptic in his acceptance of guilt
for a murder he may or may not have committed.
Margaret was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors, and scissor imagery dominates the movie. Scissors trim Roman's hair prior to execution, Mike has scissors lying around his house, Branagh's camera shoots random pairs of scissors wherever it finds them -- the only thing missing from Dead Again is Edward Scissorhands. The scissor imagery reaches wonderful, ridiculous excess when Mike and Grace discover that she is really an artist, Amanda
Sharp (get the pun?), whose work revolves around scissors. There's a parody of Man Ray's cello-model with scissors instead of f-holes on her back, and even Dali's The Persistence of Memory can't escape, with scissors replacing the pocket watches melting off the spiky trees.
Of Dead Again's supporting cast, only Derek Jacobi stands out. Jacobi, who has played roles ranging from Cyrano de Bergerac in a Royal Shakespeare Company production, to the Roman emperor Claudius in the Masterpiece Theatre series, "I, Claudius," is enigmatic as Madison the antiques dealer. (Dead Again contains one incredibly funny reference to this series, and fortunately, the film's release coincided neatly with a re-run of "I, Claudius.") His character appears as if out of a magic puff of smoke, and remains wispy and hard to pin down for the rest of the film.
It is these little things about Dead Again, like the scissors and the small quirks of character, that make it such an entertaining movie. Branagh's surprisingly generic American accent, Branagh and Thompson unconsciously repeating lines spoken by their dead counterparts, the loving references to Hitchcock -- all come together to create a film that pleases with its wry humor and thrills with its suspense.