Because we are human beings who like things that are good, it goes without saying that we love Alan Rickman. One of the finest British screen actors of his generation–and a few others too–the late great had a varied career, taking in memorable Hollywood villains to smaller independent fare. But what amongst his film roles (and we’ve focused on films that got a theatrical release) are our favorites? Glad you asked…
Kevin Smith‘s fourth film in some ways remains his most ambitious. In casting terms, certainly, and the involvement of Alan Rickman led to the writer-director warning long time collaborator Jason Mewes that he “didn’t want to piss off that Rickman dude.” Wearing 100-pound wings and taking on the role of Metatron-the voice of God–Rickman isn’t in the film too much and tends to be disgruntled when he is. It works though; he comes in, does his work, makes an impression, and moves on. Smith’s push to cast him was richly rewarded.
9. Sense and Sensibility
This starring part in a Jane Austen adaptation is the role that, by the logic of the Oscars, Rickman was most likely to get an Academy Award nomination for. As it stands, he didn’t, nor was he ever recoginized by the Academy with a single nod.
In Ang Lee‘s version of Sense and Sensibility–adapted by and starring Emma Thompson–Alan Rickman gets to play Col. Brandon. That makes him part of the love triangle for Marianne’s (Kate Winslet) affections, putting him in competition with Greg Wise’s John Willoughby. And what a performance of measured restraint Rickman delivers. It’s a more upbeat, warm role than we’re used to seeing him play on the big screen, and it’s smart casting to put him in a part that he’s not, on paper at least, the most obvious choice for. A lovely film too, with a brilliant score.
8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The very best actors have range. They’re not confined to just one kind of role. And furthermore, they’re not afraid to take on a musical that Tim Burton happens to be making. Lest you think that this article is a non-stop love letter to Alan Rickman, we should acknowledge that singing is not one of the man’s strengths. We’re not in the Pierce Brosnan ballpark here, but nonetheless, it would be no surprise had the man been offered a part in Mamma Mia! He’s have completely walked away with the film, obviously.
In Sweeney Todd then, Rickman is Judge Turpin, another character you’d rather not spend much time in the real life company of. Turpin is the man basically responsible for ruining Todd’s life, a role that Rickman does manage to deepen. It’s a supporting part, but not for the first time, one that would be foremost in the mind once the film itself was over.
7. Love Actually
Ah, a Richard Curtis film on Den Of Geek. That should cheer everyone up. Especially if we slip in that we quite liked About Time. That’s an argument for another time though.
Love Actually is Curtis’ most successful directorial effort, a collection of loosely linked stories, some of which work better than others. Easily, easily the best is the exploration of the fractured relationship between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson’s husband and wife. When Rickman is tempted to the point of buying a gift for another woman at Rowan Atkinson’s posh jewelry counter–and seriously, is there a better actor at putting tired impatience across on screen than Rickman?–their marriage is put under further strain, and Curtis puts that pivotal part of the story in the hands of two brilliant actors.
In truth, the segment works because both Rickman and Thompson are both at the top of their game, playing characters struggling in different ways. Rickman’s is the least sympathetic, and he doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. Their scenes together also stay in the mind far more than Hugh Grant playing “Just Dance,” for the record.
6. Harry Potter
Across eight films, Alan Rickman had a chance to develop the character of Severus Snape into someone far greater than the outright villain that he initially appears as in the Harry Potter saga, offering us the occasional, controlled glimpse at what’s underneath the character’s cold exterior. That’s in part down to the story that’s being told of course, but when the requisite casting people first sat down to come up with their dream list for the film, Rickman was surely on it in particularly permanent marker pen.
The trick to his performance as Snape is that in both his heroic and darker moments, he never lets us really like him that much. Even when he seems to move over to Harry’s side, there’s a sense that he could turn on you at any minute. It’s no easy feat this, as Snape isn’t a straight villain role by any measure. He never gets too much screen time in any of the films, and the demand is on Rickman to make as much as possible with what he has. He does, of course, and he makes for a damn fine action figure too.
5. Galaxy Quest
There’s a real flare for comedy in Alan Rickman’s repertoire, and Dean Parisot’s delightful Galaxy Quest is ample proof of that. On the off chance that you’ve never had the pleasure, Galaxy Quest is the film where a bunch of actors from a once-popular television series (that’d be the Galaxy Quest of the title) are doing the convention circuit. Where they encounter real aliens.
Gleefully lampooning fandom in a hugely affectionate way, the film casts Alan Rickman as Alexander Dane, who played, under obligatory make-up, the science officer of the ship. He also gets a catchphrase and a half, which Rickman spits out with weary reluctance: “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!” That his character continues to get pissed off by this more and more as the film progresses only adds to the comedy. Proof?
In an ensemble that features Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, and Sam Rockwell, it’s no mean feat to emerge as the star attraction. But this is Alan Rickman we’re talking about, and we’ll forever be grateful for his casting here.
4. Michael Collins
Neil Jordan’s controversial, excellent biopic of Michael Collins gives Liam Neeson one of his very best screen roles as Collins himself. But the film’s consistently elevated by Rickman’s supporting turn as Sinn Fein President Eamon de Valera in the film.
It’s a demanding role, without too much screen time to put a complex character across. He comes off as a weak man on screen, one with motives that aren’t always clear. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many questioned the historical accuracy of the story that Jordan put on the screen, but there’s little doubting that Rickman puts across a three dimensional character, however true to the real man it happened to be. Liam Neeson would, with some justification, get the lion’s share of the acting plaudits where Michael Collins is concerned. But Rickman deserves his fair share of applause. The film simply wouldn’t work as well without him.
3. Die Hard
“Bill Clay.” You know the moment. The bit where John McClane happens upon Hans Gruber, not necessarily knowing that it’s his nemesis that he’s in front of. The unarmed Gruber’s way out is to suddenly play frightened, a man in need of saving by Roy Rogers. And his immediate transformation is the clear and present benefit of getting a brilliant actor to play a movie villain. Because straight away, you fear for McClane, so cunning and brilliant is his opponent. You buy, if you haven’t already, that Gruber is an intensely clever man, and you vow to watch a few more Alan Rickman films, wondering if he might in some way be related to Jeremy Irons.
The ghost of Hans Gruber has hovered over the Die Hard films ever since, with John McClane coming up against, Irons aside, a series of decreasingly impressive foes in his bid to save the airport/city/country/world/planet. Because Rickman is such a strong foe too, it allows Die Hard space to be the thriller it is, rather than the flat out action movie it could have been. The battle of wills is brilliant, and that’s even before we’ve got to the wonderful meeting between him and Ellis.
Rickman would take on one more high-profile outright villain role before deliberately moving away from them (and if you’re looking for another, check out his fine work in Quigley Down Under). Which neatly leads us on to…
2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
With genuinely no disrespect meant to the many talented people involved in the Kevin Costner-headlined 1991 blockbuster, had Alan Rickman not been cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham, there’s not much chance we’d still be talking about the film some 20 years on. As it stands, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a brilliantly entertaining, overlong muddle, and a show that Rickman doesn’t just steal, he practically invents the word ‘pwned’ as he goes along. It’s the reason why his Sheriff rated just higher than the mighty Hans Gruber in this list. Gruber is arguably the better acting performance, but Nottingham is comfortably one of the most entertaining villains we’ve ever seen in a blockbuster movie.
The tone of his delivery is absolute perfection. The sheer weariness of some of it, the threat to call off Christmas, and this marvellous moment too…
Folklore suggests that when the first cut of the film came in, Rickman’s role was reduced on further edits to beef up Costner’s. That said, the extended cut that was released on disc added more Rickman, but not to the film’s advantage, revealing the strange witch woman to be his mother, which made a fairly illogical film at the best of times even yet more bizarre. The major sour taste of the film is the assault scene on Marian at the end, which is played for comedy. That always leaves us quite uncomfortable, and with good reason.
On the plus side, director Kevin Reynolds deserves credit for the fluidity of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the delightful English support cast–Elmo from Brush Strokes!–are a treat. But it’s Rickman’s film. It may as well just be called Rickman: Prince of Thieves.
1. Truly, Madly, Deeply
Reckon Alan Rickman is a great supporting actor? We’d agree. Reckon he’s a terrific villain? We’re on board with that too. Any doubts at all that he could carry a great movie, with a terrific, accessible, heartbreaking lead performance? Get thee to your DVD emporium of choice and find a copy of Truly, Madly, Deeply. It’s the late Anthony Minghella’s best film for a start, and it’s also a movie that features a stunning, beautiful leading turn from Rickman.
He’s paired with the excellent Juliet Stevenson, which helps, but he’s heavily invested in his role of Jamie, who loves Stevenson’s Nina. But their dream of a life together is tragically cut short when Jamie suddenly dies. However, his ghost starts appearing to her, and with nary a potter’s wheel in site, Rickman puts in a delicate, exquisitely judged performance. What makes it all the more special is that it keeps some ambiguity to it all. Is Nina seeing just what she wants to see or is the ghost of Jamie really before her?
It’s a lovely film, this, free of the cloying sentimentality that a studio environment would have flooded it with. In a career packed with must-see performances, this one remains arguably Alan Rickman’s best.
There are lots of other Rickman roles that could have made this list. Feel free to share our love of the man in the comments below, and add your own highlights…