After measuring himself against no less than Laurence Olivier with his modernized adaptation of Henry V and comparing favorably, Kenneth Branagh took aim at no less a figure than Alfred Hitchcock with his next film. As entertaining and stylish as Dead Again is, Branagh seems to be on much surer ground when tackling the Bard of Avon than he does with the Master of Suspense. Visually and thematically, this movie almost feels like vintage Hitchcock but, story-wise, it’s a little bit on the thin side.
The film opens with a melodramatically classy opening title which, via lurid headlines, details the murder of pianist Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson) and the arrest, trial, conviction and execution of her husband, composer Roman (Branagh). The action leaps forward to the present day and a young woman who can’t talk or remember her name (Thompson again) wakes up screaming from a nightmare. She showed up at the door of a Catholic home for boys one night. Rather than turn her over to the police and see her committed, a compassionate nun has the priest in charge bring in a private eye named Mike Church (Branagh), who used to live at the home, to help find out who she is.
Putting her picture in the paper brings out the usual collection of kooks, including Franklyn, an antique dealer (Derek Jacobi) who claims he can help discover her identity via hypnosis (for a share of finder’s fee from her family, of course). Willing to try anything, Church takes her down to Franklyn’s shop. Under hypnosis, however, the woman reveals not her life but the intimate details of the marriage between Roman and Margaret Strauss, years before she was even born. The skeptical Mike goes for a second opinion to one of his clients, a misanthropic, defrocked psychiatrist who now works stocking shelves in a supermarket (Robin Williams), but the man cautions him not to disregard what the woman saw.
The film’s themes of karma, identity and redemption are novel but not really well developed. There never seems to be another layer to this film beyond what’s happening on screen, as there often was with the best of Hitchcock. What is on screen, however, is a pleasure to look at. Branagh the director is a bold stylist who does memorable things with his camera. As an actor, he even affects a credible American accent, although it seems like mish-mash of regional dialects that would only work for the film’s Los Angeles setting. Emma Thompson has more to do, however, as both of her characters are strapped to some kind or another of emotional roller coaster. Both actors also appear to be having a ball in the film’s stylized black-and-white 1940s scenes, allowing themselves to push things a little further toward the melodramatic, as is completely appropriate.
Three memorable supporting performances bolster the work of the film’s stars. Derek Jacobi has fun as the slightly disreputable hypnotist who isn’t above asking his clients to keep an eye open for valuable antiques during their past live regressions. Andy Garcia makes a notable impression as the sleazy reporter who wrote most of the lurid headlines plastered all over the walls of Roman Strauss’ death row cell. Really making the most of his scenes, however, is Robin Williams as the shrink still raging with bitterness after being disgraced for sleeping with his patients. Think of a low-rent Hannibal Lecter without the culinary issues.
Composer Patrick Doyle, who has scored virtually all of Branagh’s films, does a fine job here of channeling his inner Bernard Hermann into a boldly recognizable Hitchcockian score. It’s just another one of the many elements of this film that really do work. They just seemed to be crowded onto a minimal story that’s less than worthy of the craftsmanship that went into bringing to the screen.