When my radio alarm woke me this morning with the news that actor Alan Rickman had died, I found my thoughts turning to his most memorable role. It wasn’t the maniacal villain in Die Hard, or the inky-haired Severus Snape, though those are surely the first images that came to mind for many. I immediately thought of Colonel Brandon in the film Sense and Sensibility.
It’s one of my favorite films. Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, did so beautifully, turning Austen’s first novel into a movie that (in my blasphemous opinion) is even more engaging than the novel itself. And when I saw it the first year after I graduated from college, I liked it so much I saw it three times in the theatre (and countless times on VHS – boy, that really dates me, doesn’t it?).
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Rickman in action. I’d seen Die Hard, and I’d enjoyed him immensely in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he stole every scene he was in (it was one of the first movies I could cite where the villain was way more appealing than the hero). And I knew that he’d starred in the stage production of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses; his role in the movie version was played by John Malkovich, who wasn’t bad, but nothing to what I imagine Rickman could have done in that part.
But in Sense and Sensibility, he played a role that opened my twenty-something eyes to a truth about dating that every woman has to learn: Don’t overlook the quiet guys who fly below the radar. Still waters run deep. (I should add here that if you haven’t seen S&S, don’t read any further, as I’ll be indulging freely in spoilers.)
In the movie, his character Colonel Brandon loves Marianne (Kate Winslet) instantly. Remember the first time he sees her, playing the piano and singing? It’s such a beautifully-filmed scene, catnip for a romantic like me.
But Marianne – like many young women, honestly – doesn’t give him the time of day. She wants the dashing hero who sweeps her off her feet. She finds it, quite literally, in Willoughby, the guy who carries her home when she sprains her ankle and woos her with poetry and knows exactly what to say at all times. He drives a fast carriage; he’s thrilling and a little dangerous. She’s nuts about him. But the romance ends in heartbreak, passionate tears, and an awful social snub at a ball that shows the guy’s true colors once and for all. (There’s also that bit about him seducing another woman and leaving her alone and pregnant. He’s just a bad boy all the way.)
But Colonel Brandon is the opposite: he is steady, devoted, ethical. He cleans up Willoughby’s messes, stands by the woman he jilts (women, I guess), and is at all times courteous and kind. There’s a great scene where one of the busybodies tries to throw Marianne and Brandon together by suggesting that they play a piano duet. Marianne immediately says rudely that she doesn’t know any duets, a pointed response mean to show her lack of interest in Brandon. Rickman’s face falls; he’s felt the snub. All the same, a second later he pulls out a chair for Marianne as she sits at the table. A gentleman to the end.
And Rickman’s performance – which is amazingly subtle – makes this good-guy-ness extraordinarily compelling. (By contrast, when I later read the novel, I found the character of Brandon very stodgy and dull – a testament to what an actor can do to bring a character to life.) Even at the age of twenty-two, I felt that Rickman’s Brandon was infinitely more appealing than Willoughby, and far more engaging than Hugh Grant’s genial and adorably tentative Edward. In the character of Brandon, Rickman made decency extremely attractive. With his inimitable voice and his perfectly-modulated expressions, he showed the virtue of a dependable man who does not up-play himself, who can weather disappointments without losing his innate decency, who is willing to ride all night to help the woman he loves, even if she hasn’t yet given him any shred of hope that she returns his interest. He showed us that those traits – not, God forbid, a smooth-talking insouciance — is what’s really sexy in a man.
Marianne takes a while to figure it out, but by the end, she does. And maybe what makes the finale of that movie so extra-wonderful, even among Austen movie finales, is that we’re just as thrilled that the guy ends up happy as we are that the heroine ends up happy. We care about him just as much as we do about her.
So while I, like everyone else on Facebook, mourn the passing of a truly great actor, I’m grateful in a way that goes beyond my appreciation of his talent. I can’t say this about too many actors, but I think that perhaps he gets some of the credit for the current happiness of my personal life, for helping to sharpen my antennae about what really matters in a man. As Colonel Brandon, he showed countless young women that the guys who fly below the radar are worth another look. And thanks to the eternal magic of film, he’ll keep on doing so for generations to come.