Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Wayne Knight
Rated R for Language and Violence
Sleight-of-hand is essential for a thriller to work. What I mean is that the director must show us something important, but in such a way that we don't recognize it until it becomes important later. Or that we don't see the twists coming. It's tough to pull off, but when it happens, it's worth mentioning. "Dead Again" contains two twists that blindsided me. Although I freely admit that I'm bad at guessing whodunits in movies, this isn't what I'm talking about.
In 1949, classical pianist Margaret Strauss (Thompson) was murdered by her husband Roman (Branagh), a composer and conductor from Germany. Six months later, he was executed for his crimes. This information is splashed on the screen in newspaper headlines during the opening credits, so this isn't a spoiler.
Cut to present day. Private dick Mike Church (Branagh) has been assigned what appears to be an open and shut case. A woman (Thompson) had clambered into an orphanage where he grew up with no memory of who she is. She doesn't speak and suffers from violent nightmares. His task is to find out who she is and return her to her husband or family, whichever that may be. It appears to be an open-and-shut case, but when an antiques dealer named Franklyn Madson (Jacobi) shows up and starts talking about past lives and such, things get weird. Mike thinks the guy is a swindler, but through him, the woman (whom Mike dubs Grace) reveals some startling details about the old murder.
The good thing about this film is that it's smart. It takes our obvious observations and accepts them. For example, it is not a spoiler to say that Mike and Grace are reincarnations of Roman and Margaret Strauss. Anyone looking at the poster could see that. We know it, Branagh knows it, and Branagh knows that we know it. He doesn't waste our time trying to fool us on something that we have accepted as a given before we have pressed play. He uses this as a jumping off point. If only other directors could have as much respect for the audience as he does.
The performances are solid, if unspectacular. Kenneth Branagh is a little difficult to accept as a motormouth private eye, but he's solid. No one is going to mistake him for Bogie, though. Emma Thompson is always a delight, and here is no different. Derek Jacobi, Branagh's inspiration and frequent collaborator, is quite good as the hypnotist; I wouldn't be surprised if anyone got hypnotized when he talks. Andy Garcia doesn't embarrass himself as a bored journalist, which is nice, although another actor could have done it better. Wayne Knight and a truly creepy Robin Williams provide solid support.
Critics have likened this film to Hitchcock, and its an apt comparison. While not an imitation or even a love letter, it has some of the same feel. No one will mistake this for a ripoff, but I have no doubt that if Hitch had been alive to see it, he would have been pleased.
"Dead Again" is a little too disjointed to be labeled as a masterpiece, and not everything holds up once the end credits roll, but that's to be expected. This is, as Hitch called it, a "refrigerator movie." And a damn good one at that.