I know, I know. You loved Alan Rickman, who has died aged 69, in Harry Potter. He was adorably arch in Galaxy Quest (all autograph signings should be conducted thus). I know he was a great, withering Sheriff of Nottingham, and a besuited baddie in Die Hard. You may have seen him less villainous, but still weak and “foolish,” as his would-be philandering character put it, in Love, Actually.
But Alan Rickman’s best film, for this Rickman fan anyway, was and will always be Truly, Madly Deeply, which has been barely mentioned today, and is such a fine film, and shows such a range of Alan Rickman—far beyond the baddie—that I want everyone to watch it, box of tissues at hand.
This 1991 British movie saw him play a ghost, a guy called Jamie who has died, and who returns to the living world—well, we assume it is, it may be a figment of her imagination—of Nina, his girlfriend, played by Juliet Stevenson.
Jamie had been a cellist (Nina is an interpreter), and the music in this wonderful film, scored by Barrington Pheloung, is a character in its own right.
So is London, which director Anthony Minghella uses as a both gritty and charming backdrop, whether it be capturing telephone numbers scrawled on hands from the windows of hastening double-decker red buses, or a sweet first date on the South Bank.
We watch as Jamie re-installs himself in Nina’s life, turning up her heating to tropical levels because he's always cold—and their connection, always intense and reasserted through music. Rickman is transfixing: he is loving, and selfish, and a ghost both sure of his place and not so sure of his place. He is still insistent on being a part in the living world, even though he knows he is no longer of it.
The trajectory of this far-from mawkish or manipulative film is to follow Nina letting go—of Jamie, of their love. If it sounds like Ghost, yes, it shares a film, but none of the predictable emotion-sapping cues.
Nina meets a lovely guy who works with disabled kids, played by Michael Maloney, who assumes—because she doesn’t want him to know where she lives—that she is living with someone else. How can she tell him she is living with her dead partner’s ghost?
Jamie’s selfish behavior during the film can be seen as helping Nina let go, of removing the idealized halo she has placed around her memory of him. He invites other ghosts back to the flat to watch videos.
“Do you mean to tell me there are dead people in my living room watching videos?” Nina asks Jamie.
The ghosts complain loudly when it is discovered she has taped over Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
You can see the film as an extended metaphor around loss. You can see Jamie’s presence as wholly imagined by Nina. But at its powerful heart—and you will absolutely cry buckets watching it—Truly, Madly, Deeply, so exquisitely acted by all its players but particularly Rickman and Stevenson, is about loss, grief, letting go, memory, and, finally, moving on. The final scene brings the ghost world and the living world, and Nina’s possible future, powerfully together.
The great trick and intelligence of the film is that the love story it is rooted in is between Rickman and Stevenson, but the ending you’re rooting for is for them to be finally apart.
Grief tethers us, Truly, Madly, Deeply tells us, and while that is natural, letting it become a constant anchor—as time goes on—only impedes our ability to find new ways of living and loving.
And now Rickman really has joined that spirit world. I hope he’s already surrounded by the kinds of compadres he had in Truly, Madly, Deeply. He will be missed by his many fans as keenly as Nina misses Jamie.