Anyone who saw Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V," his stunning directorial debut, is going to approach Dead Again with enormous expectations. If his Shakespeare film brazenly evoked comparisons to Olivier, this tricky thriller, in which Branagh plays double roles, deliberately raises the specter of Orson Welles. Well, do yourself and the movie a favor: lower those expectations. Branagh's second effort is highly entertaining claptrap, an exercise in artifice that's more sophisticated than most summer fare, but hardly a film noir classic.
Scott Frank's cleverly convoluted and frankly preposterous story takes place both in the black-and-white '40s and the full-color '90s. Back then, a goateed, German-accented Branagh plays refugee composer Roman Strauss, first discovered on death row about to be executed for the murder of his wife, Margaret (Emma Thompson). Five decades later, Branagh reappears as L.A. private eye Mike Church, investigating the identity of a mute, amnesiac woman (Thompson again), whose violent nightmares seem to be those of the murdered Margaret Strauss. With the help of an antiquesdealing hypnotist (Derek Jacobi), who unlocks her memories of her past life, the two stories begin to converge. Is she a reincarnation? Is Mike the reborn Roman? Has fate decreed they fall in love again, and die again?
As much fun as the movie is (it delivers some real chills and a creepy turn by Robin Williams as a demented exshrink), it leaves a slightly tinny aftertaste. As both an actor and a director, Branagh exhibits more bravura than conviction. In "Dead Again," he's diverting us with his bag of theatrical tricks and hedging his emotional bets by playing the material close to parody. There's little passion behind the pyrotechnics: you never quite shake the feeling that you're watching a talented cast playing an elaborate game of Let's Pretend. Still, be grateful for the genuine amusement "Dead Again" supplies. It may be cotton candy, but it's well spun.