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Dead Again is second feature from Branagh; a great mystery

Dead Again

Dead Again has one of the best endings to a film I have ever seen. Period. It ranks up there with Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects, and other films with surprise endings. However, while the resolution is surprising, the denouement is so well done that you may find yourself watching it over and over again. Director Kenneth Branagh, with his second feature, has proven that he is very capable of directing many different types of films, and at the same time, starring in them. No other director that I know of has starred in his own films, given credible performances, and at the same time, created a masterful work.

Dead Again has a very refreshingly original plot which allows the film to combine the style of the 40s with the frantic, quick-paced action of the 90s. The film noir moments are filmed using black and white, not only for effect, but to give the viewers a little clarity. Both actors, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, have dual roles and the color/no color contrast allows viewers to distinguish which time period the events are taking place in. The only problem with the film is the beginning which starts in the past, and then shifts to the present. It was a little confusing trying to figure out that Branagh was playing two roles. Fortunately, once the film gets on its feet, it never stops its relentless adrenaline-pumping run.

Most of the film takes place in the present day, with Kenneth Branagh portraying Mike Church, a private detective. He is asked to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding one Amanda "Grace" Sharp (Emma Thompson). Sharp won't talk, and she is paranoid that someone is trying to kill her. She locks the door to her room and puts a chair under the door handle for added protection. But what makes her think she is being stalked is one of the essential pieces of information Church must deal with. She has been having nightmares about a man on death row who stabs her to death with a pair of shears which he stole after his final haircut. Church suggests that she go to a hypnotist who can help her. Franklyn Madison (Derek Jacobi) is only a part-time hypnotist, but a hypnotist nonetheless. He considers that her problem may be something in her past, perhaps in a past life. Church, being the logical and sensible man that he is, thinks that Madison is crazy. Madison puts Sharp under, and she begins to tell the story of a married couple: Roman and Margaret Strauss (Branagh and Thompson).

I will tread lightly because most of the film hereafter is mysterious in its unfolding, and I may not reveal anything at all. I will say that the rest of the plot consists of surprises, plot twists, and uncertainty. The revelation of the Strauss' life begins to uncover events which may have led to Sharp's paranoia. This story begins to clarify why Sharp is so nervous, but suddenly twists arrive in the plot, and nothing is as it seems. Is someone actually trying to kill her? At the hands of a lesser director, nothing would have made sense. Branagh, being his second major film, is a powerful director, with traces of Hitchcock in his film. We may even have our next Hitchcock in Branagh. Unfortunately, Branagh has strayed from mainstream films, choosing to direct the brilliant Hamlet, a film most people tried to stay away from.

Watching Dead Again, I began to realize how much detail is involved in Branagh's work. The music is perfect (and won a Golden Globe nomination) and sets the right mood for the different time periods. Composed by Patrick Doyle, who also appears in the film in both timelines, the eerily enchanting score enhances the mystery as well as the tone. The ending is the best moment of the film. Many directors don't know how to end a film, or it isn't consistent with the rest of the picture. Branagh uses slow motion to enhance the final showdown, a film technique which, if used appropriately, can strengthen the suspense and climax. Dead Again is one of the few films which end with the climax, instead of a resolution. In my opinion, most resolutions are slow and distasteful. Sometimes a film will call for one, but after the climax, most audience members don't care what happens. Branagh wisely ends this film once the high point of the film is finished, leaving a sense of pleasure, instead of a sense of boredom.

Most of the praise should go to the director, but without the actors, there is no director. Kenneth Branagh is one of the only directors who can star in a film and direct it at the same time, creating a masterpiece (this does not include Mel Gibson). As an actor, Branagh is terrific. His dual role is handled extremely well, and without revealing too much, his portrayal of Mike Church has some hints as to the ending of the film. Certainly, only Branagh would be able to handle this kind of role while directing. Emma Thompson fairs better than Branagh, because she has a more complex role to play. Thompson maintains her nervous, but paradoxally trusting, character throughout the film. In her dual role, she does the same thing Branagh does, revealing small clues as to who is who and what is what. Derek Jacobi has a tough job, trying to rise to the level of the two leads. Surprisingly, he does so, and gives one of his best performances I have seen him give. Andy Garcia gives a good performance in his smaller role. Unfortunately, Garcia's role is a little too small, and his performance isn't as memorable as the rest of the cast. Also worthy of note is Wayne Knight (from Seinfeld), and Robin Williams, toned down from his normal frantic self.

Dead Again is rated R for violence and language. The screenplay, written by Scott Frank, is very intelligent and witty. The plot twists are amazingly detailed and impressive, and I wonder how the Academy forgot to nominate this screenplay. Maybe it was too original for their tastes (and Silence of the Lambs was out that year). The cinematography, done by Matthew F. Leonetti, is quite impressive, especially his management of both time lines. Dead Again is a masterful piece of filmmaking with impressive sets, great acting, and some of the best direction of a film of this genre. Snubbed by the Academy, this film exhibits Branagh's multiple talents, and the ending is pure cinema. Films these days aren't made like this anymore.

**** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
Movie Reviews