According to Dead Again death is not the end, in fact it is quite literally the beginning. The credit sequence (which I nearly skipped by accident) starts off the show by showing the brutal deaths of two doomed lovers in the post-war era of the late fourties: Roman and Margaret Strauss, a German composer and his concert pianist; one murdered and the other made to die for for doing it. Then we leap forward to a modern day LA where a woman resembling Margaret is struggling to remember who she is when a prototypical Private Investigator is called in to solve the case, one who just so happens to look identical to Roman. We can see instantly that the romance will be rekindled, but are they bound to repeat the pattern forever?
Dead Again is then a strange kind of ghost story, one in which humans are haunted by their own past lives. This is a fascinating premise, but I spelled out the story more to show you just how big and blunt the film is in its depiction. We apparently can’t be trusted to make connections on our own and so the characters are played by the same actors, just with broad accents and pasted on beards. On further reflection I needn’t have done so because simply looking at the films title tells you all that you need to know about its execution: Dead Again, it’s brisk, cheap and utterly lacking in poetry which is not what you would expect from someone of Branagh’s background.
Kenneth Branagh has a very strangely received directorial career: critics and minor masses alike tend to enjoy his movies but besides Thor they would never mention them unless asked and even then perhaps only at gunpoint. There is also this underlying sense that no one seems to think of him as an established director yet, despite having a dozen features to his name ( more than most of my favorite directors). So it is only a small surprise that this, his first film – Henry V, as good as it is, was a play that he put on in front of a camera; it was theatrical direction – is something that I had never heard of before I brought it today for two dollars.
It’s hard to say that I was disappointed given that price point but it was however something of a shock to see that despite the class and caliber of all involved Dead Again is technically akin to those titles that sat alongside it in the bargain bin. Though the techniques that he employs and style he uses are undoubtedly ‘filmic’ Branagh still allows the time spent treading the boards to bleed through here and the result is a very big and broad film, one befitting the opera’s that Roman would write.
The massive over-acting from the cast of British thespians makes sense in the fourties set flashbacks with their greyscale filters, but the present scenes are shot like an indie and so these extravagances seem thoroughly out of place. There are times when it plays a little smaller, like those scenes spent with Robin William’s perverted psychologist, and these all work quite well but by the time the film finishes you’ll be struggling not to find the whole thing rather funny. I mean, when Robin Williams is giving the subtlest performance in your film maybe you need to rethink some things.
There are the seeds of a stirring, subtle drama buried in here – I can see it being something special in the hands of EP Sydney Pollack, whose fingerprints are present on the central romance section – but Branagh buries them deep beneath the layers of Deli goods: It’s ham, cheese and corn all the way down. It’s tragic to see such a strong story drowned in its execution but that is undoubtedly what has happened here: the romance is unraveled by the ridiculousness and the tension hamstrung by the constant hilarity, but get Aronofsky or some other auteur involved and it could remake rather well. I hope that this is not the end for the story, that Dead Again can get the kind of second chance that its characters got and that Branagh has learned something from its relative failure.