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‘Dead Again’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991


Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh;
Emma Thompson;
Andy Garcia;
Derek Jacobi;
Hanna Schygulla;
Robin Williams;
Campbell Scott

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What went around comes around in Kenneth Branagh's "Dead Again," a campy Gothic melodrama about one couple's ongoing hassle with bad karma -- which probably also explains why the actor-director and his real-life missus, Emma Thompson, are involved in this overwrought and overly facile look at accounts payable in the afterlife.

A tale of revenge, murder and passion reincarnate, the film links the unhappy marriage of a composer and his wife in 1940s Los Angeles to the present-day affair between a cynical gumshoe and his amnesiac client. Branagh and Thompson play the German musician, Roman Strauss, and his plucky pianist wife, Margaret, as well as the annoyingly scrappy Mike Church and the mute woman he calls Grace.

Enlisted to learn Grace's identity, the chronically noncommittal Mike finds himself drawn irresistibly to his enigmatic, high-cheekboned client. Alas, Mike is getting no closer to solving the puzzle when an idiosyncratic hypnotist, Franklyn Madson (Derek Jacobi), offers his services. Certain that Grace's terrible nightmares have to do with a past life, Franklyn regresses her back, back, back to postwar L.A. Now able to speak again, she recalls the first flush of Roman and Margaret's ill-fated courtship.

Mike, a cynical wisecracker, scoffs at Franklyn's suggestion that she has recalled a past-life experience. But it is a beginning at least, a place to start his investigation, which leads by turns to the Strausses' former housekeeper (Hannah Schygulla) and the newspaperman (Andy Garcia) who covered Margaret's murder and her husband's subsequent trial.

From time to time Mike also seeks guidance from a defrocked analyst turned meat cutter (Robin Williams), who serves the story as an expert witness -- lest we begin to have our doubts about this knotted chain of events. "It's the karmic credit plan," he explains to the bewildered protagonists. "Play now, pay forever."

Implausible as screenwriter Scott Frank's plot may be, it does stick courageously by its screwy premise: Souls may migrate but they don't go south for winter. They just keep on keeping on throughout eternity. Directing with an eye to "Rebecca," Branagh brings more mood than suspense to this apparent hommage to Hitchcock. Still, he raises no goose bumps. The two stories, one shot in black-and-white and the other in color, seem only to steal from each other.

Branagh, whom audiences last saw in the guise of Henry V, is charmingly faded as the goatee-sporting, hand-kissing Roman, but as Mike he's all wrong -- perky as a cricket. Thompson, who played "The Tall Guy's" strong-willed girlfriend, slips from era to erafar more graciously. And while the entire cast mostly alienates us with too much stage business, Garcia does so with only his beard stubble and fop's hairdo. You get the feeling he was a hairbrush in another life.

Oh well, what's the difference? They'll only remake it till they get it right.

"Dead Again" is rated R for violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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