Looking to give a quick rundown of my ten most favoured Rickman roles (in chronological order), I realised how many of his characters are made more real by a central conflict. They are all fellows of tremendous ambivalence; figures at once likeable and unlikeable, who perhaps both like and dislike themselves. What also became clear was just how versatile Alan Rickman was as an actor, as well as how often he worked with the same actor/s more than once – always a sure sign of a beloved man.
Die Hard (1988) Hans Gruber
This was Alan Rickman’s feature film debut – and not a bad one at that – coming rather later than you would expect, in his forties. Playing the now iconic villain Hans Gruber, Rickman also demonstrated that he could do not only a passable German but also American accent. Gruber is portrayed as mercilessly professional in the execution of his criminal tasks, terrifying but also somehow charming.
Truly Madly Deeply (1990) Jamie
This film could only really be described as a ‘weepie’, yet Rickman’s matter of fact, ‘real’ and still very human portrayal of the ghost of Nina’s beloved boyfriend, makes his reappearance seem somehow believable. Jamie is shown to have loved his girlfriend dearly, to have adored her, but at the same time he eventually comes to realise that he has to leave her.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) Sheriff of Nottingham
As the Sheriff of Nottingham, Rickman threw himself into the glorious tradition of English actors portraying larger than life villains (surrounded by a bunch of Americans pretending to be the English good guys!) Here Rickman delivers some delightful tongue-in-cheek lines with enough spiteful gravitas that the film almost seems like a high-brow piece of drama. He prowls around his castle, pointing at lowly looking women, “You, my room, 10:30. You… 10:45. And bring a friend” is said with such careless conviction that I am only just now realising that the Sheriff probably didn’t have a timekeeping device that accurate. This was also the film in which Rickman gave us the slightly dubious sexual manoeuvre of forcefully leaping on top of your captive bride and athletically scissoring her legs open with your own. What a mover.
Dogma (1999) Metatron
The explanation of the Metatron is that he is the “herald of the Almighty”, the voice of God (Alanis Morissette) addressing humans on Earth. Rickman as the Metatron is introduced when he appears in our main protagonist’s bedroom. Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) is understandably startled and expresses concern that he has entered her home with the intention of doing something criminal to her. The Metatron’s response is straight-faced, if a little wistful, “I’m as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll.” Rickman’s performance in Dogma is genuinely funny because it is so dead-pan, even when his wings unfold gloriously around him. As the film progresses, he is also shown to be compassionate, faced with the challenges of having to explain the more difficult realities of God’s great plan to Bethany.
Galaxy Quest (1999) Alexander Dane
Alexander Dane is a British character actor. He has grown tired of only being remembered for his role as Dr. Lazarus, an alien member of the crew of the starship Protector. Alan Rickman’s turn as a long-suffering lovie, condemned forever to attend wearisome sci-fi conventions is genuinely funny. In this film, Rickman demonstrates not only a natural talent for comedy, but also for affectionate parody.
Love Actually (2003) Harry
The conflict here is between two women, Harry’s wife Karen (Emma Thompson, who also worked with Rickman in Sense and Sensibility eight years earlier), versus the flirtatious piece of crumpet from the office, Mia (Heike Makatsch). Perhaps the best known of Rickman’s scenes in this film is when the shop assistant (Rowan Atkinson) is trying to package a purchase for him. Harry’s rising irritation and simultaneous sense of impending dread at being caught out as he tries to swiftly purchase an expensive necklace is palpable. He creates a character who shows genuine love for his wife, but also lust for Mia. It is surely due to Rickman’s ability to portray Harry’s conflict, having committed reprehensible actions but also warm towards his wife and family, that the great wide female internet out there detests Mia and still gives old Harry the benefit of the doubt. That’s dedicated fan girls for you.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Marvin
While only used for his vocal talents in this film, Rickman manages to elevate Marvin the Paranoid Android to new heights. Though I will admit that I prefer the BBC TV rendering of this classic series of books, Rickman’s dry yet somehow loveable voice work gives the audience new empathy for Marvin.
Snow Cake (2006) Alex
Here Rickman stars as Alex, a man who flitters between two women in very different ways. On the one hand, he is an attentive friend to a recently bereaved autistic woman, Linda (Sigourney Weaver) on the other he is paying naughty visits to town outcast Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) most evenings. Whatever secrets Alex reveals to Maggie at the end of the film, we forgive, so endearingly is he portrayed.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Judge Turpin
Judge Turpin is a totally deplorable character and his actions lead to the downfall and deaths of most of the principal characters of Sweeny Todd. Despite this, it’s a real treat to hear him singing Stephen Sondheim classics, particularly in the duet ‘Pretty Women’ with Johnny Depp.
Alice in Wonderland (2010) Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar
Appearing in another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp extravaganza, Rickman plays Absolem as a contrary character to most you will meet in Alice in Wonderland. The blue caterpillar is a slow and commanding, tiny little creature, who through the voice of Rickman manages to ask the right questions at the right time and in just the right way. Absolem provides just the push Alice needs to finally accept who she is and, crucially, to remember her previous trip to ‘Wonderland’. In his final scene, the blue caterpillar is seen working himself into a cocoon, ready to transform in the way the audience hopes Alice is about to. In their exchanges, Absolem calls Alice, “stupid girl” and “dim-witted” but at the same time Rickman’s voice always sounds fond. “Perhaps I will see you in another life” he tells her. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass (2016) will be Alan Rickman’s last film. From the trailer, we can see that Absolem is now a beautiful blue butterfly.