Dead Again 30th anniversary: Under appreciated reincarnation noir

It’s been 30 years since Kenneth Branagh’s reincarnation thriller Dead Again. The 1991 Neo noir portrays a natural chemistry between stars Branagh and Emma Thompson. It makes sense since they were a real life couple at the time. On the Dead Again 30th anniversary, that connection is still convincing. Even though they would divorce four years later, the couple’s then bond is clear on screen.

Is reincarnation or karma real? Can two soul mates really meet again? These are a few of the questions screenwriter Scott Frank poses. Long before captivating audiences with the pill popping chess genius Beth Harmon, Frank wrote Dead Again. A story about those deeper after life questions as much as it is a standard 90’s thriller.

It’s less sexual than your typical thriller. More about love, then sex. But Dead Again is a sensual story and complicated romance. A great whodunit with a Hitchcockian look. Set to a brooding score by Patrick Doyle. All the traits of the best kind of thriller. 30 Years later, it still delivers what it promises.

Dead Again 30th anniversary and exploring past lives

Emma Thompson plays Grace. An amnesiac with horrific nightmares who has been rescued by the church. However, unable or unwilling to help they enlist the help of a local PI. The self proclaimed bachelor Mike Church. Mike tries to help Grace regain her identity. Of course, like so many movies that start with a cynical loner, he soon falls for the mystery woman. But how are the two strangers really connected?

Derek Jacobi is Franklyn, the antique dealer and hypnotist. He offers to help Grace recall her former self by putting her under hypnosis. Something Mike remains cynical of, at first.

But she begins to recall a captivating and unexpected story. One which brings the two closer together. Along with Mike, and Grace, we learn that she was Margaret Strauss. Wife of celebrated, and infamous composer Roman Strauss. And also his victim. In 1949 Strauss was found guilty of murdering his wife and sentenced to death.

Besides trying to find out her identity, a new mission emerges for the strangers turned partners. Figuring out the truth at the heart of the Strauss murder. And how that relates to their own connection.

Jacobi, a classically trained actor doesn’t have many film credits. But this understated, yet integral performance stands out. In fact, literally every performance in Dead Again stands out. Besides stars Branagh and Thompson, essentially playing four roles. There is also Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s Newman) for some comic relief. Andy Garcia as journalist and antagonist Gray Baker and Campbell Scott as a random bad guy. They all shine as small, yet charismatic characters.

Then there’s Robin Williams uncredited cameo role as Dr Carlisle. A disgraced psychologist turned meat market worker. His short, yet enigmatic scenes with Grace and Mike offer both crucial exposition and information. In one moment, he teaches them both about karma, and reincarnation. Explaining that “cosmic fate” can lead connected people back to each other. But it also allows for karmic retribution. Explaining, if you burn somebody in a past life, “….they get to burn you in this one.”

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Credit: Imdb

This, as well as reincarnation and past lives are all vital themes in Dead Again.

Topics we don’t often see depicted with much seriousness. Films Defending your Life and Office Space portray these topics with brilliant comedic effect. New thriller Reminiscence starring Hugh Jackman also deals with ideas around past lives and reliving memories.

But few have explored it like Dead Again. Not just delving into reincarnation. But taking that further by asking questions about gender and sexuality. And how they too play a role.

Every detail of Branagh’s mystery feels important. From the black and white flashbacks of their past lives as Roman and Margaret in the forties. To less important call outs that mean to foreshadow.

Smaller movements later turn out to be clues alluding to one of the film’s twists. When they finally discover Grace’s real identity, more symbolism is at play. Not only is she an artist obsessed with scissors. Her real name is Amanda Sharp.

One year before Sharon Stone would become synonymous with an ice pick, Emma Thompson and her real life beau played with extra sharp scissors. Both small, and life size.

Though Dead Again is in part a supernatural thriller, there are no ghosts here. Except for perhaps the memory of those who live in our head. Past lives, and the regression of them are treated like realistic, and possible ideas. Mike and Grace’s connection, both in the past and the present aren’t meant to be fantastical.

They’re presented in reality. That depiction is what lends itself to Dead Again’s authentic feel. No matter how much suspension of disbelief the story asks us to have.

From a killer standpoint, we know that history will repeat itself. But figuring out how is what makes the story interesting.

To those who, then or now, still gripe at the authenticity of the use of hypnotism or fate, you’re missing the point. We can agree that destiny led these two people back together as their new, future selves. We can even believe the idea that sometimes, revenge can also transcend past lives. Allowing for that is what makes Dead Again fun and rewarding in the first place.

It’s the Dead Again 30th anniversary. So, let’s revisit the under appreciated 90s gem.

The thriller is currently streaming on Cinemax.

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