A Surprise Hollywood Thriller From Branagh
San Francisco Chronicle, August
by Edward Guthmann
TWO YEARS AGO, when Kenneth Branagh
directed and starred in the film version of Shakespeare's ''Henry
V,'' and won a pair of Oscar nominations for his efforts, it
established him as one of the most multitalented figures to emerge
from England since Laurence Olivier.
Fiercely talented, blessed with
a glorious speaking voice and a burning glint in his eye, Branagh
showed remarkable skill as a director and turned ''Henry V''
into a crossover success -- the sort that Shakespeare interpreters
dream of but seldom achieve.
The film earned $ 20 million
-- no small change for a relatively low-budget British art import
-- as well as an Oscar for costume design. In its wake, it might
seem logical that Branagh take another stab at Shakespeare. Instead,
he opted for the unexpected, by directing and starring in a classic
Hollywood thriller -- in his words, ''a real movie movie'' --
called ''Dead Again.''
Redolent of classic film noir
and Hollywood romance -- and reminiscent of Brian De Palma's
playful, cheeky homages to Hitchcock (''Obsession,'' ''Dressed
to Kill'') -- ''Dead Again'' also tosses in a wonderfully preposterous
element of reincarnation, and includes supporting performances
by Andy Garcia and an unbilled Robin Williams. It opens Friday
at the Regency I Theater.
After ''Henry V,'' Branagh, 30,
recalled during a San Francisco visit, ''I got sent battle pictures,
a lot of military stuff with rain and bullets. None of it really
grabbed me. I started to think, 'I'm being sent everything that
everybody else has turned down.' But then 'Dead Again' arrived.''
Branagh was in Los Angeles at
the time, performing at the Mark Taper Forum with the Renaissance
Theater Company in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' When the script
to ''Dead Again'' arrived, and he glanced at the title, he recalls,
''I was pretty sure it wouldn't be any good. But I couldn't put
it down. I had this very powerful reaction that happens once
in a blue moon, where you read something and feel, 'This is absolutely
for me.' ''
Written by Scott Frank -- who
also created Jodie Foster's upcoming directing debut, ''Little
Man Tate'' -- ''Dead Again'' stars Branagh and his wife, the
marvelous Emma Thompson, in matching dual roles. In the first
set, Branagh plays Mike Church, a cynical Los Angeles detective
hired to discover the identity of the beautiful amnesiac Grace
(Thompson) who is suffering from horrendous nightmares.
With the assistance of an officious
hypnotist (Derek Jacobi of ''I Claudius'' fame), Church probes
Grace's memory and finds that her dreams conjure the story of
Margaret, a glamorous and wealthy woman (Thompson again) whose
Hollywood marriage to Roman Strauss, a tempestuous symphony conductor
(Branagh), ended tragically in 1948. Presumably, Grace is Margaret
reincarnated. But don't be too sure.
Branagh shot the contemporary
private- eye footage in color and filmed the Roman- and-Margaret
flashbacks in black and white. Matthew F. Leonetti was the cinematographer,
and two of Branagh's ''Henry V'' collaborators -- production
designer Tim Harvey and costume designer Phyllis Dalton -- created
the two styles: contemporary gothic Los Angeles and lush, black-and-white
For Branagh, playing Mike Church
was ''a little bit of a fantasy come true. If you have a memory
of those kind of movies -- of square-jawed heroes and macks with
the collar turned up -- the chance to play some variant of it
was very exciting.''
PARROTING a wise-guy American
accent with extraordinary accuracy, Branagh comes off as a younger,
slicker, but no less jaded Columbo. In part, he says, Irish roots
equipped him for the part: ''Coming from Belfast originally,
where they have a hard 'r' -- a very strange way of talking,
with slightly harder edges -- there's something in your ear that's
familiar with American speech, as opposed to that soft English
He also worked with a dialect
coach, ''and the time I spent in Los Angeles in the theater was
enormously important: driving about L.A., letting the repairman
in in the morning, buying groceries, getting a sense of the city
geographically.'' During preproduction, Branagh tested his developing
accent on strangers at shopping malls.
With Branagh, a man who earned
comparisons to Olivier when he was barely in his 20s, one senses
nothing is beyond his reach. In person, however, there's barely
a trace of smugness or overconfidence -- merely a slight, fair-skinned
man who projects great intelligence and tact, but little of the
magnetism he exudes on screen.
Born in Belfast, but reared since
age 9 in Reading, a London suburb he describes as ''characterless,''
Branagh planned a journalism career but was struck by lightning
when he dabbled in secondary-school theater. Fresh out of the
Royal Academy of Dramat- ic Art, he won the lead in Julian Mitchell's
play, ''Another Country,'' followed it with the Royal Shakespeare
Company's ''Henry V,'' and won a large TV audience with a seven-hour
''Masterpiece Theater'' series, ''Fortunes of War.''
Despite his reputation as a man
of the theater, Branagh says movies were his first love. As a
kid, he feasted on mystery novels and grew addicted to Hollywood
thrillers, particularly Alfred Hitchcock's, on local television.
''I remember watching them on Saturday afternoons in Belfast,
when my parents were out.''
The ultracinematic mood of those
pictures spoke to Branagh: the sense of heightened drama, the
tingling suspense, the gothic pull of Bernard Herrmann's sound
tracks. With ''Dead Again,'' he recognized those childhood passions.
''I obviously had a great deal
of affection for those movies, with all the ingredients of that
sort of noirish landscape: the woman with no memory, the creepy
house, the private eye, the mysterious hypnotist, the past and
the present. I'd love to say I brought a thousand things to it
but I didn't, really. I merely enjoyed executing a look that
was already reeking off the pages.''
Before ''Dead Again'' came to
his attention, Branagh says, several directors had passed on
the film. At the same time, Branagh was vainly pitching a movie
version of ''Return of the Native,'' Thomas Hardy's 19th century
novel. But Branagh's twin Oscar nods in February of last year
suddenly pumped up his bargaining muscle.
On the morning of the Oscar nominations,
Branagh says, ''I went in to see Paramount, who had sent me 'Dead
Again' to direct. I said, 'Well I'd be delighted to direct it
if I could play those two male parts and my missus could play
the other two.' It really was a take-it-or-leave-it situation.
''They got terribly nervous.
They weren't sure we could do American accents. They knew I had
a reputation in England, but essentially didn't know who I was.
And I think the reason they agreed was the timing: It couldn't
have been more exciting for them to have somebody who'd gotten
two nominations coming in that morning. I was at my most flavorsome.''
With ''Dead Again,'' Branagh
admits, he hopes to confound anyone who may have pegged him a
high-minded Brit with a plummy accent.
''I like the idea of surprises,''
he says. ''That's in every actor's blood. Olivier described it
once when he was talking about the night he played Mr. Puff in
Sheridan's 'The Critic,' and then played Oedipus the same evening,
on the other side of the interval. One is a camp, foppish, post-Restoration
funny guy; the other a Greek tragic hero. Somebody asked him
why he had done this, and he said, very seriously, 'I wanted
to show off.' ''
For the next course in his ''amazing
education in film,'' Branagh plans to make Shakespeare's ''Much
Ado About Nothing.'' He would play Benedick, opposite Thompson's
Beatrice, and hopes this time to broaden his audience even more
than he did with ''Henry V.''
With ''Henry V,'' he says, ''I
always felt I was making a popular film. Clearly the time and
the mood were right, and there was an atmosphere receptive to
something that made people feel it was OK to respond to something
like that as a movie, and not as some kind of cultural event
or an intelligence test.
''If I have a mission, it's to
allow Shakespeare to breathe a bit, to enter the 20th century.''
Branagh also wants to act soon,
preferably in a contemporary film, for another director. ''It's
wrong to work exclusively in Shakespeare,'' he insists, ''because
that's what produces the worst kind of British classical acting,
which is tight- assed and pleased with itself. It's partly because
they see something like this ''Dead Again'' as somehow less worthy.
And I don't feel that remotely.''
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