A Surprise Hollywood Thriller From Branagh

San Francisco Chronicle, August 18 1991
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 Hollywood reverie.

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 blandness.''

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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