Dead Again was Kenneth Branagh’s first ‘American’ film. Made while he and Emma Thompson were still married.
The titles set up the story – or part of it, anyway, as, in between the actors’ names, we see old newspaper headlines about a Murder case. Famous pianist Margaret Strauss was murdered with a pair of scissors, and her husband, conductor Roman Strauss, was the prime suspect. Mrs Strauss is played by Emma Thompson.
The film opens in moody black and white as Strauss (Kenneth Branagh) is in prison, having his hair cut ready for the electric chair.
Reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) visits him in the cell. Strauss tells him he still loves his wife.
But then the scene ends with Strauss walking down a corridor and it turns nightmarish as Strauss comes up to a woman, lifts some scissors, and says “These are for you”
Then Emma Thompson wakes up from her nightmare in the present, and in colour. She’s sleeping in the old house of Roman and Margaret Strauss, which is now owned by the church. She arrived there two days ago, climbing the gate, and she doesn’t speak, and appears to be amnesiac.
The priest in charge hires an investigator to find out who the mystery woman is. He calls Mike Church, also played by Kenneth Branagh.
He’s on his way to another case, finding a psychiatrist who has inherited money from a former client. The psychiatrist is played by Robin Williams, who I had completely forgotten was in this film.
He takes Thompson’s case, and puts her picture in the paper, aided by friend Wayne Knight.
Along with all the cranks claiming they know who Thompson is, they are visited by Derek Jacobi, an antique dealer with a side business in hypnotism and repressed memories.
When they next visit Jacobi, he’s working with Miriam Margolyes.
I don’t trust Jacobi, but so far his most evil action is to get his subjects, who are examining old memories, to mention any ‘objects d’art’ they might see along the way.
With Thompson, rather than regressing a couple of years, her memory is from 1948, and she’s talking about when Roman met Margaret.
It’s interesting to watch this film knowing how it ends. The flashbacks have to be staged a certain way, and I’m watching to see if it all narratively makes sense.
We meet the Strauss’ housekeeper on the day Roman and Margaret get married, played by Hanna Schygulla. Margaret asks her to move out of her room and move downstairs, and I detect some resentment there. Her son has a pronounced stammer. I’m sure that’s not important.
Branagh and Thompson start getting romantically involved, which becomes awkward when Campbell Scott turns up as Doug, Thompson’s fiancee.
Except he’s another fraud, who almost fools Branagh, then gets away by shimmying down a palm tree.
We get more flashbacks, showing the disintegration of the Strauss marriage, as Roman is not being as successful as he’d hoped, and Margaret is being chatted up by Andy Garcia’s journalist Gray Baker.
Margaret catches Schygulla’s son with his hand in her jewellery drawer, and she thinks he’s stealing. She wants Roman to fire Schygulla, but he won’t because they helped him escape Europe. She’s also now suspicious of him because Baker tells her that all his money came from his first wife.
Then, at the end of the vision, she sees Roman with the scissors again, except it’s not Roman, it’s Mike.
Thompson is now terrified of Mike, thinking that he must be the reincarnation of Roman, back to murder her again. So Mike gets regressed by Jacobi, and in a rather neat twist, when he tells him to look around and look at himself in a mirror, this is what we see.
So Mike is Margaret, and presumably Thompson is Roman.
Wayne Knight arrives with the truth about Thompson’s identity. She’s an artist, with an obsession with scissors.
Jacobi, all of a sudden, counsels against letting Mike see her again, even offering her a gun to protect her.
Meanwhile, Mike is getting equally bad advice from discount shrink Williams, who says he should kill Thompson first or she’ll kill him. I don’t have much faith in the professional ethics of either of these people.
Then, an actual real face from the past, as Mike gets a message that Gray Baker wants to talk to him. He’s had a tracheotomy. He believes that Roman didn’t kill his wife, and says Mike should talk to the Housekeeper, Inga. The last he knew, she and her son had opened an antique shop. OH NO!
Mike talks to Inga and accuses her of killing Margaret.
And we learn the truth of who killed Margaret. It was Frankie, Inga’s son.
To be honest, when I first saw this, I should have connected Frankie’s stammer with the casting of Jacobi from the start, because he’s famous for playing roles with stammers.
Mike goes to see Thompson, but she’s still convinced he’s going to kill her, and ends up shooting him, just before Jacobi arrives to stage it like a murder suicide. But no, Mike’s still alive and the climax is a glorious slow motion epic clearly inspired by De Palma, with Patrick Doyle’s score working overtime sounding a lot like Pino Donnagio and Bernard Herrmann. Even Wayne Knight is there, stumbling into the scene with pizza and making things worse. It’s gloriously silly, but exactly what the film should be doing.
And because there are some immutable laws of the universe, Derek Jacobi’s villain, after one brief deployment of his stammer, does end up falling onto something sharp and pointy, namely one of Thompson’s many scissor-based sculptures. Textbook villain ending.
That was a lot of fun. Of course, any film featuring Emma Thompson (now Dame Emma Thompson) is already well worth watching, but this is truly bonkers, in a good way.
- trail: JFK