A Bad Case of Karma

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh’s first film, Henry V, invited comparisons between the wunderkind Branagh and the eminence grise of English theater, Lord Olivier.  Lord Larry had also acted and directed a film version of Shakespeare’s play forty years earlier, when he himself was a wunderkind.  When it came to Branagh’s sophomore acting/directing effort, he decided to do something completely different by making 1991’s metaphysical thriller Dead Again.

The script was written by Scott Frank, and was his second full-length screenplay to be produced.  Since then, Frank has made a solid reputation for himself by writing the screenplays for such movies as Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report and Marley and Me.  He also did the script for the upcoming Marvel Superheroes reboot, The Wolverine.  Frank created a twisty thriller where the echoes of an earlier murder are played out in the present day.

Branagh chose to highlight the scenes from the late 1940s by filming them in black and white, while doing the present day scenes in color.  It’s been done before and since, but Director of Photography Matthew F. Leonetti did some of his best work ever in the B&W scenes.  After starting out doing TV movies in the 1970s, Leonetti had become a journeyman cinematographer, working on such projects as Eyewitness, Jagged Edge, and Dragnet.  In Dead Again, Leonetti mirrored 1940s film noir, but accomplished a deeper and clearer chiaroscuro effect on the screen.

Behind the credits, Branagh uses newspaper headlines to tell the story of the murder of Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson) and the conviction of her husband Roman (Branagh).  The reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), who wrote the stories seen in the credits, comes to interview Roman while he’s having his hair clipped before his execution.  Roman continues to deny killing Margaret, but as he’s leaving the cell he leans over and apparently whispers something to Baker.  Baker remains in the cell, stunned, until he notices the scissors the guard was using for trimming Roman’s hair are no longer there.  As Roman walks down the corridor, we see the scissors slip from inside his sleeve into his hand.  Then, at the end of the corridor, Margaret appears.  Roman raises the scissors as he says “These are for you,” and brings them down –

– and a woman (also played by Thompson) wakes up screaming from a nightmare in the middle of a thunderstorm.  The woman (who we later learn is named Grace) has shown up at a Catholic orphanage suffering from amnesia as well as being hysterically mute.  The orphanage happens to be located in what was once Roman Strauss’s mansion.  While the sisters in charge take her in, they can’t keep her there.  They turn to Father Timothy (Richard Easton), who calls in a favor from a former orphaned resident of the home.

Mike Church (Branagh) had served in the LAPD before becoming a private eye specializing in finding people.  Church is working a case, finding Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), a psychologist who had his license revoked when he gave a bit too much comfort to his female patients.  Father Timothy prevails on Church to help discover who the woman is.  Through a newspaper contact (Wayne Knight), Church gets a picture of Grace into the paper, asking for help to identify her.  He’d planned to drop her off at the downtown psych ward, but after seeing the conditions there he changes his mind and brings her to his apartment.  The next day, after Grace’s picture has appeared in the paper, they’re visited by Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi), an antiques dealer who is also a hypnotist.  Through hypnotism, Madison takes Grace back to her previous life, and the mystery of what really happened to Margaret Strauss.

Branagh keeps the story racing along as it ping pongs between the 1940s and the 1990s.  Frank has written a beautiful twist midway through the movie, and there are sharp moments that shoot adrenalin through the audience’s veins, such as when Mike accidentally calls Grace Margaret.  The final reveal and confrontation are beautifully played out.

The lush theme music by Patrick Doyle helps build the atmosphere of the movie. Doyle has collaborated with Branagh on his directing projects from Henry V through Thor, as well as scoring other films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Pixar’s Brave. Doyle has also performed small roles in some of the films he’s scored. He’s the cop in the elevator when Church brings Grace to the psych ward.

The supporting cast Branagh assembled was excellent. Garcia’s Baker is a disheveled knight in a wrinkled white suit who has his own obsession with Margaret. When the audience meets him 40 years later, he’s become an effective anti-smoking advertisement. Campbell Scott has a brief but important scene in the film. That same year he did Dying Young with Julia Roberts, which let him come out from under the considerable shadow of his father, George C. Scott. Hanna Schygulla (The Marriage of Maria Braun) plays Inga, Strauss’s devoted German housekeeper, while Gregor Hesse plays Inga’s speech-impaired son Frankie. Schygulla has remained busy acting in Germany, but Hesse stopped acting in films after a couple of TV episodes the next year and concentrated instead on music as a pianist and composer, which is interesting since that’s Strauss’s occupation in the film. Stage and screen actress Christine Ebersole has a cameo role as society reporter Lydia Larsen.

Both Branagh and Thompson have perfect American accents as Mike and Grace, while Thompson uses her normal English accent as Margaret and Branagh does a subtle German accent as Roman. It’s a joy to watch them play off each other. The two had met while doing an English miniseries, “Fortunes of War,” in 1987 and married 2 years later. There might have been echoes of Olivier and Vivian Leigh, as they worked together in Branagh’s first four films. But the marriage ended in 1994 and Thompson went on to carve out her own career as both an actress and an Oscar-winning screenwriter. She plays a supporting role as well as wrote the script for the movie Effe, to be released this May.

Jacobi had worked with Branagh on Henry V, serving as the Chorus who narrates the movie.  He’s excellent in Dead Again; Madison is wonderfully colorful, slightly larcenous and smooth of tongue but commanding at the same time.  Jacobi has continued to work ceaselessly through the years; recently he played the Archbishop of Canterbury in The King’s Speech and reunited with Branagh for My Week With Marilyn.  (He’s also working with Thompson again in Effe.)

After his divorce from Thompson, Branagh’s career dimmed.  His 1994 version of Frankenstein was a critical and financial failure.  He’d filmed a good version of Hamlet, doing the full four-hour play for the first time on the screen, but it was a marathon for moviegoers and didn’t earn back its investment.  Still, it did much better than his fourth adaptation of Shakespeare, Love’s Labor Lost, that he filmed as a 1930’s musical.  It was a major bomb, making only a couple hundred thousand dollars at the box office in the US (off a budget of around $13 million).  His nadir as an actor was his role as the legless Dr. Lovelace in The Wild Wild West.  He was memorable as Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and also as Reinhard Heydrich in HBO’s Conspiracy.  Recently, though, he’s had a renaissance.  He was wonderful in My Week With Marilyn playing Laurence Olivier, and Branagh had his greatest financial success ever directing Thor.  Currently he’s working on the reboot of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, both directing the film and playing a supporting role.  It will be released this upcoming December.

While not a major movie, Dead Again is a solid effort and well worth a viewing.

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