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!”