Expectation is the culprit in this romantic whodunit. With Kenneth Branagh — the boy wonder of Belfast — following up his Oscarnominated triumphs as star and director of Henry V, you hope for something vital. Branagh didn't just declaim Shakespeare; he made the words live. Dead Again is a two-hour search for a pulse. Admittedly, it's as unfair to accuse Branagh of slumming because he chose to do lite instead of the classics as it is to compare Scott Frank's script with the Bard. It's a matter of what works, and Dead Again doesn't.
But not for lack of trying. Branagh's direction is tirelessly inventive. That's the trouble; he overworks an already overcomplicated movie-within-a-movie plot. Branagh has two roles: Mike Church, an L.A. private eye of the Nineties, and Roman Strauss, a German composer of the Forties, executed for murdering his wife, Margaret (Emma Thompson). The two story lines converge when Church is hired to find the identity of a beautiful amnesiac (also played by Thompson). Church is attracted to the woman, whom he calls Grace, and brings her to hypnotist Franklyn Madson (a cunningly dotty Derek Jacobi) in the hope of unraveling the puzzle. That's when Grace starts remembering nightmarish events, not from her life but from Margaret's.
All this lets the cast try on different period clothes, makeup devices and accents. Branagh is a deft mimic, even if his American voice sounds disconcertingly like Mandy Patinkin's. But for all the technical expertise in design, costume and camera work, the time-zapping quickly grows exhausting. And the film keeps throwing in new eccentrics, including Andy Garcia as an elderly newsman who once loved Margaret, Hanna Schygulla as the Strausses' housekeeper, Campbell Scott as a suitor for Grace and an unbilled Robin Williams in a role I still can't figure out.
In his efforts to crowd the screen with character and incident, Branagh cheats on the one element that might have given resonance to the mystery: the love story. Branagh and Thompson (married in real life) are sublime actors, but they never develop a convincing ardor as either couple. How could they when the director is so busy playing tricks? Dead Again isn't a disaster, merely a miscalculation from a prodigious talent who has forgotten that you squeeze the life out of romance when you don't give it space to breathe.