Past Life, Past Death: Fixation in Dead Again

For many people, the scariest thing is not the supernatural monster waiting in the dark, but the darkness waiting in human nature. That someone we think we know could turn out to be evil is the most frightening possibility. Intensity of emotion makes us human, but when taken to extremes, this leads to danger. An unhealthy fixation is often at the heart of stories where people hurt each other, and an example of this is Dead Again. This film uses a terrific plot device of reincarnation as an aid to visualize themes of fate, justice, and trust.

Released in 1991, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in Dead Again alongside Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia, and Derek Jacobi. Scott Frank wrote the script. In the story, Mike Church (Branagh) is a former police officer and private investigator called on to help an amnesiac and mute woman (Thompson) he calls Grace who has shown up at the religious boys’ school where he grew up. After printing her picture in the paper to locate anyone who knows her, an antiques dealer and hypnotist named Franklyn Madson (Jacobi) arrives and offers help. In their sessions, they discover her trauma stems from past-life events. Roman and Margaret Strauss (Branagh and Thompson again) were a 1940s couple whose marriage was violently cut short by her murder and his being accused of and executed for the crime.

I’m not sure why more screenwriters don’t use the concept of reincarnation in their scripts. It is an effortlessly intriguing device which lends itself to a love story or a tale of suspense, and the audience finds both in this film. Helpfully, one of Mike’s clients (played by Robin Williams!) is familiar with the rules of past lives, so the viewer gets all the information they need. The third act starts off with a nifty twist involving who is really the reincarnation of each half of the past couple. (Spoilers from this forward.) After calling Grace “Margaret” in a slip of the tongue, Mike agrees to undergo hypnosis to discover his connection to the past, and he gets a shock—MIKE was Margaret, which means Grace must be Roman. You really get the sense that Mike and Grace are supposed to be together but also worry about who might be the danger to the other. Does a tragic ending have to be inevitable? The story deftly plots out the revelation of who actually killed Margaret Strauss.

This brings us to the character of Frankie, the son of the Strauss housekeeper. His mother realized she loved Roman, but Roman only loved Margaret. This unleashed Frankie’s darkest impulses. He stabbed Margaret, but only his mother knew and she protected him. Also, Frankie learned about reincarnation while undergoing hypnosis treatment for his stutter… YUP, Frankie and the helpful hypnotist are one and the same. The audience is told he became “obsessed” with the idea that Margaret would exact karmic justice upon him. He attempts to end the threat, but the modern-day couple fares better than the past one. As a side note, another detail that touches on the idea of fixation is the fact that Grace’s actual identity is an artist, and she uses scissors—the murder weapon from the past—in much of her work.

Reincarnation is an excellent plot device, and it is used to entertaining effect in Dead Again. The combination of romance and suspense is effective here, as it can be in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who was an influence. Branagh brings to the story his own style, both as director and star. The ideas of fate, revenge, and obsession may be timeless, but it takes skill to make them work over and over again; in Dead Again, they do.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.

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