'Dead Again' brings new life to classic movies

August 23, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

Dead Again" makes some of the best movies of the past live again. While it couldn't be more derivative, it's so elegant and so witty that it leaves one open-mouthed in admiration. Kenneth Branagh, whose first feature was 1989's "Henry V" and whose second feature tis is, does not seem capable of doing wrong.

Branagh and his equally precocious scriptwriter, Scott Frank -- both men are barely 30 -- set out to make a film that is as Hitchcockian as possible. As in such movies as "Vertigo," a detective investigates a crime whose solution may bring about his own death and/or that of the woman he loves.

Branagh and his real-life wife, the English actress Emma Thompson, each play two roles. Private investigator Mike Church (Branagh) is called upon to try to find the identity of the mysterious Grace (Thompson), who has lost her memory and her ability to speak. Through the efforts of an eccentric antiques dealer (Derek Jacobi) with a gift for hypnosis, Grace is "regressed" back to a former identity. It seems that she may be the reincarnation of the famous pianist Margaret Strauss (also Thompson) who was apparently murdered by her equally famous conductor-composer husband, Roman Strauss (Branagh again).

This basic scenario gives birth to two movies -- one set in the past in black and white and acted in the style of 1940s film noir and another in color acted in contemporary fashion. This tour de force of film making is subjected to incredible narrative twists and turns that seem -- in the end -- to have been logical and inevitable.

But if the movie is Hitchcockian, Branagh's use of the camera clearly pays homage to the Orson Welles of "Citizen Kane." The best of several artful allusions to that movie involves Mike Church's visit to the old-age home where Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) is dying. The scene recalls the visit of the reporter to the aging Joseph Cotten in the earlier film only to ring some dazzlingly bizarre changes upon it.

Like Laurence Olivier -- his great British predecessor as an actor-director -- Branagh has a knack for freeing actors to do their best work. He himself is so fine in the two parts -- with faultless accents as the American Mike Church and the German Roman Strauss -- that some moviegoers may not realize that it is the same actor until the movie is almost half over.

Derek Jacobi is simply terrific as the antiques dealer who knows even more about the past than he lets on. Thompson, one of the least conventionally beautiful of all beautiful actresses, makes it easy to believe that different men in separate lifetimes would fall in love with her. Garcia is great as a reporter with a weakness for Thompson and cigarettes, and Robin Williams gives an over-the-top performance as a defrocked psychiatrist who believes in karmic retribution.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about "Dead Again" is the tissue of ironies created by its references to other movies -- and not just to those by Hitchcock and Welles. This does not mean that enjoyment is tied to cinematic literacy, but such knowledge does alter one's enjoyment. If one comes to "Dead Again" simply as a thriller, it succeeds simply as that. But if one knows the movies to which Branagh teasingly alludes, the experience is richer if somewhat less visceral.

At moments of great intensity, Branagh occasionally likes to wink at his audience to remind us that this is just a movie. But the young director has so much fun with his material that it is all but impossible not to share his exhilaration.

'Dead Again'

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia and Derek Jacobi.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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