Dead Again April 29, 2015
Alice fell into a hole the length of a half-marathon and found herself in a land of hookah-smoking caterpillars and prompt rabbits. We didn’t ask any questions as she sauntered around Wonderland. We let her do the talking, while we, drink in hand, sat back and hoped she would get into enough trouble to provide for a hoot of a story. We couldn’t put ourselves in her shoes — no one has had a tea party with a zany hat enthusiast (except maybe Liza Minnelli or some other unpredictable broad) — but we were more than willing to act as a sidekick during her so-called journey.
Kenneth Branagh more or less asks us to do the same thing with Dead Again, a mystery/thriller/fantasy/romance/film noir which spirals into the realms of lustrous cinema, defying explanation. This isn’t the kind of movie that hits you over the head with its pragmatism, though; it's rather a sweeper to be thrust into the same category of a Michael Curtiz sudser. You lose yourself in its reverie. It takes the best components of a 1940s melodrama, the finest ingredients of a neo-noir, and concocts something simultaneously retro and modern. The results travel back and forth between head-scratching and engrossing, but remaining is Branagh’s knowing eye for film, and what makes it so magical in the first place.
Dead Again introduces itself with a slap and a bang of headlines. Vintage newspapers are slammed in our faces, enthusiastically announcing the murder of Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson), a prominent concert pianist. The world has decided that her husband, composer Roman Strauss (Branagh), is guilty, and, without missing a beat, grabs him by the hand and leads him to the electric chair. If this isn’t a tragic romance, then I don’t know what is. The film then transitions into a black-and-white setting, moments before Strauss’s death; we think we’re about to get a full-blooded noir homage of The Man Who Wasn’t There dedication, but not quite.
Just as things are about to get interesting, bang!: the sensibilities of modern filmmaking techniques fill the screen. The jump from 1948 to 1991 is startling; but even more startling are the characters we come to meet. One is an amnesiac named Grace (Thompson); the other is a private detective, Mike Church (Branagh). And no, these fictional entities are not merely the result of prominent actors playing dual roles. Mike is called by a friend to try to help Grace figure out her true identity — but things, expectedly, turn out to be much more complicated than ever expected. It seems that Grace can only recall the details of Margaret Strauss’s life, and Mike, as realistic as he is, is beginning to experience similar sensations.
They enlist the help of an eccentric hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) who doubles as an antique dealer. Throughout their many encounters, it becomes abundantly clear that Mike and Grace may very well be the reincarnations of the doomed Strauss’s; and romance, along with danger, are following close behind.
Dead Again is borderline ludicrous, but doubts arrive long after the film is over; we’re kept too busy to notice a flaw. Unlike Branagh’s many other movies, this is not a film only for the intellectual crowd. It is also for those who are a) looking for a glorious romantic thriller, or b) are huge fans of classic cinema. It’s popcorn entertaining, easy to absorb and hard to dislike. Our brains are buzzing, our hearts pounding with the promise of romance, suspense. Branagh takes a number of risks (how about that unexpected ending?), considering he photographs every Strauss flashback in magnificent black and white and fancies the tracking shot techniques of Hitchcock. Most pay off; the twists are what weaken the film, not its cinematic techniques.
But I suppose I’m only nitpicking. One shouldn’t complain about such things when talking about a movie that places reincarnation at its front and center. Fact is, Thompson and Branagh are wonderful together (they were husband and wife during filming, after all), and Dead Again is ingenious in its aesthetic and conception. It doesn’t go as deep as one would hope, turning out to be much simpler than originally expected (considering its many complications). But this is grand escapism that ties a cherry knot in our minds and leaves us intrigued. B