Alan Rickman's Extraordinary Legacy, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Atlantic
I’ll remember him, always, as Snape. His career stretches further than the Harry Potter films, but there is just something unforgettable about him moving through Hogwarts’s halls—the all black, the villainy in his cloak swelling around his ankles like a shadow. All his love hidden until the very end.
A lesser-known film role for Rickman was Franz Anton Mesmer, the famous German physician with controversial healing methods. In a review of Mesmer in the February 1998 issue of The Atlantic, Lloyd Rose reveled in Rickman’s brilliance:

Rickman is always a strong screen presence, but he’s hard to classify. You can relegate most actors either to the string section or to the brass, but Rickman somehow combines a dark, sonorous tone with something haunting and faraway, as if he’d mixed a cello with a French horn. His specialty is fusing opposing traits: he’s mannered yet honest, too much yet reserved, bored and curious, high-strung and animal-still.

This sort of complexity isn’t always useful to an actor, but it’s invaluable in roles that call for genius or mysticism. And certainly Rickman has all the equipment required to play Mesmer: charisma, intelligence, sensuality, pride, and what one critic called “the face of a Magus”—anachronistic features that make him look at home in an earlier century. (He made his reputation in a play with an eighteenth-century setting, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.)

Rickman has spent the bulk of his movie career being brilliant in supporting parts that don’t need brilliance; he must have realized the opportunity he had in the role of Mesmer, because he tears into it. He’s not just brilliant here; he’s great, bold to the point of folly: the performance constantly—breathtakingly—flirts with the overwrought and the ludicrous. Rickman keeps making outrageous choices and forcing the audience to believe them through sheer force of personality.

And yet, beneath the arrogance and theatricality there’s something artistically modest, almost shy. The purpose of acting isn’t display but to “give it away,” Rickman once told an interviewer. “Throw it to the audience. Catch!”

Appreciations of the great actor from David today here, Megan here, Christopher here, and readers here. Rest in peace, Alan Rickman.