Alan Rickman: Even Better as a Romantic Lead

The actor may well be remembered for playing villains, but the roles that found him lovelorn deserve just as much celebration.

Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility (Columbia Pictures)

That voice. That rumbling, grumbling growl whose vague menace is a reminder that humans are, at their core, animals. Alan Rickman’s simmering baritone allowed him to play, time after time, quintessential villains: the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rasputin, Elliot Marston, Hans Gruber. Those roles, after his death, may well be what Rickman is best remembered for: Rickman, the “complicated villain.” The “sensual screen villain.” The villain “you couldn’t help rooting for.”

Equally worth celebrating, though—and maybe even more—is the narrower category of Rickman’s long list of film credits: the few roles that, in their way, exploited the full potential of his voice and his person. The ones that cast him, somewhat counterintuitively, as a romantic lead. Jamie in Truly, Madly, Deeply, witty and charming and selfless. Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, gallant and strong and terribly sad. It came as little surprise, in the end, that Severus Snape had been, all along, the Harry Potter series’s true romantic hero: Rickman was able to weave a subterranean anguish into even his portrayal of the stone-cold, black-robed wizard.

These were all the performances of a highly skilled actor, yes, but they were something more: They were all, in the literary sense, Romantic. They celebrated love not just as an obligatory B plot in an otherwise dude-driven action movie, or as a simple social concern, or as an emotional inconvenience; they treated love, instead, as an end in itself. The nuance Rickman lent to his roles brought to the fore centuries-old, and yet still highly relevant, treatments of romance as a series of collisions—of individual and other, of emotion and reason, of passion and social constraint.

And here’s the thing that’s both totally obvious and totally noteworthy: These characters were men. Today, in an era ushering in a complicated relationship with traditional notions of masculinity—the era of Are Men Necessary?, the era of The End of Men—that seems significant. And insightful. Rickman’s portrayals of men in love are at once retrograde and progressive: They celebrate the simple yet culturally freighted fact that men can love as deeply as women. That men can easily do the romantic work that so many cultural products have often, and lazily, assigned to everyone else: pining, longing, waiting.

Not all of Rickman’s turns as a “romantic lead” were, to be sure, truly romantic. (See: Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd. And Harry in Love Actually. Ugh, Harry.) And he of course played many other characters beyond villains and romantic heroes. (Galaxy Quest! Dogma! The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!) It was the traditionally romantic roles, though, that most deftly combined Rickman’s great capacity for comedy with the emotional nuance that his singular physical gifts—those acrobatic eyes, and that sinewy voice—allowed. It was the romantic roles that merged two things that, all these years after the true Romantic era has passed us by, still drive so much culture: sense, and sensibility.