Love, actually: The artistic friendship of Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson

Love, actually: The artistic friendship of Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson

TUESDAY 16 MAY: “Sometimes Alan reminds me of the owl in Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. If you took too many liberties with him I’m sure he’d have your tail off in a trice.”

- Emma Thompson, The Sense And Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries

Following Alan Rickman’s recent death, many of his former colleagues came forward to speak about his generosity as a performer and his devotion as a friend. Perhaps the most poignant came from longtime collaborator Emma Thompson, who released a statement that hinted at the depths of their rapport: “That intransigence which made him the great artist that he was—his indelible and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me, and the fact that he never spared me the view. I learned a lot from him.”

Their peculiarly successful work marriage—a comfortably malleable relationship in which he starred in films she wrote, she starred in films he directed, or they simply appeared together onscreen—became something of a tradition for them, and was a calling card of their careers. Not all their collaborations were deeply felt meetings of the minds, of course. Over the sprawling opus of the Harry Potter movies, for example, Rickman and Thompson barely even share the frame, even though they’re both Hogwarts instructors. They’re together by accident, part of a Brit-actor zeitgeist that assembled for the movies to establish a mythology.

Overall, their partnership transcended two decades, starting in the 1990s, when Thompson was genre-hopping, Rickman was trying to sneak out from under the shadow of Hans Gruber, and both of them were leveraging their nascent stardom into signature work behind the scenes. In an interview about 2003’s Love Actually, Thompson wryly acknowledged the depth and breadth of their working bond when a journalist asked if there was anything they hadn’t done together: “We’ve had no children, but pretty much everything else.”

As a performer, Rickman left behind an impressive and eclectic legacy. But in a generation of those looking for a sense of the genuine beneath the performance, and those who respect the idea of actor as auteur, there’s something particularly touching about a friendship like the one he has with Thompson that plays out obligingly onscreen. Their camaraderie was impossible to miss, and their onscreen collaborations were always buoyed by the sense that they enjoyed being in one another’s company as much as we enjoyed watching the results. Below, their five most fascinating projects, from a friendship 20 years in the making.

Sense And Sensibility (1995)

Emma Thompson’s passion project was an Oscar-winning adaptation of Austen’s first published novel, and proved to be an excellent opportunity for Thompson to gather a handful of British actors who have shared stage and screen in dozens of permutations. She wrote the role of the quiet but deeply felt Colonel Brandon with Rickman in mind, even though it was her first time working with him—not that you could tell, as their scenes carry the easy weight of a long friendship. The adaptation cut out the subplot where Mrs. Jennings suspects Elinor (Thompson) and Brandon’s friendship will end in marriage, but kept a scene in which Elinor’s own beau suspects she and Brandon are attached; given their chemistry, it’s no wonder.

The centerpiece of Rickman’s performance is his confession of his past to Elinor, who can only watch as he reveals just how much the rakish Willoughby is guilty of. In her diary of the shoot, Thompson notes that she’d considered a more complicated version of the scene, but abandoned it in favor of something quieter that would give Rickman room to reveal himself amid the exposition. Shooting the scene, she writes, was “very moving,” waxing poetic about what was so appealing in Rickman’s take on romantic reserve: “He’s played Machiavellian types so effectively that it’s a thrill to see him expose the extraordinary sweetness in his nature. Sad, vulnerable but weighty presence.”

The Winter Guest (1997)

Next up was Rickman’s passion project. The Winter Guest (adapted from the 1995 play co-written by Rickman and Sharman MacDonald) follows a handful of characters soul-searching through a single, bitter winter’s day in northern Scotland. It’s a tone poem of wry existential crisis from childhood through old age, and a little self-serious in places (it leans so heavily on its metaphorical frozen sea it brushes magical realism). But it’s a movie of deep feeling—bursting with the sort of earnestness that springs from essential loneliness—with some beautifully underwritten moments. Though much of the cast made the leap from the original stage production to the screen, Rickman stated the addition of Thompson as Frances was essential as soon as the adaptation was in the works: “Whenever the film version came up, it was sort of automatically assumed that Emma would do it too.”

Rickman’s an actor’s director, letting the camera linger to catch every shift in expression and body language, and it works to Thompson’s advantage. Firing on all cylinders opposite her real-life mother Phyllida Law, Thompson’s turn as brittle widow Frances is the film’s centerpiece. Rickman’s direction frames her face with the same gravity as the stark beach landscape around her, and Thompson effortlessly captures the movie’s outward ice and its inner bleeding heart. (The role won her Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival; Rickman won the CinemAvvenire Award.)

Judas Kiss (1998)

In a 1997 piece about Rickman and Thompson’s collaboration, the L.A. Times wrote that “‘The Winter Guest’ came together so smoothly that it left Thompson and Rickman eager to work together again.” That might be the best that can be said about Judas Kiss, an ambitious but disjointed thriller that combined a fascinating cast, a Technicolor heist, and some hard-boiled noir pastiche with predictably uneven results. (If you ever wanted to see Carla Gugino and Simon Baker make out in a neon-tinged meat locker, you’re in the right place.)

And yet, who needs high art all the time? From their opening stare, it’s clear that Rickman and Thompson are having the time of their lives: They lope gleefully through the B-plot, chewing on iffy Southern accents, rattling off good-cop cliches at one another at high speeds, and making offhand plans to hook up as soon as the case is cracked. Their energy is palpable, and any time they share a scene the movie lurches to life, pleasantly surprised, until the next gentle derailment. Rickman wasn’t entirely accurate to the onscreen dynamic when he told the Times, “It’s been sort of accidental, but I think we’re a good team. We play a kind of tatty Bogart and Bacall in this filmonly Emma’s Bogart and I’m Bacall.” But in terms of sheer cheeseball enjoyment, it’s not far off.

Love Actually (2003)

For a movie that’s so forcibly schmaltzy about the sustaining power of love, Love Actually’s best subplot is its most bitter. The intertwining arcs are decidedly hit or miss, and the actors tend to make or break it, so it would be no surprise for Rickman and Thompson run away with their material regardless. (Rickman’s scene-stealing was already legend by then, and Thompson is no slouch.) But their material also happens to be the most nuanced of the lot; Harry and Karen’s perfectly lived-in marriage comes apart, a slow disaster that’s all the more wrenching for how polite and fond it is. There’s also some built-in subtext; by now, Rickman and Thompson’s working partnership was well-known, so watching them as a married couple took on a level of comforting meta that just made the fracture worse.

The limbo of their marriage remains one of the only sophisticated endings in a movie characterized by a final triumphant crescendo that plays obliviously over what feels like 15 minutes. But even that wouldn’t linger as it does if it weren’t for the easy, heartbreaking history Thompson and Rickman bring to the screen; there’s just enough of their rapport that we feel the loss of something special when it’s gone. (During a 2015 livetweeted screening, the only relationship questions that co-writer Emma Freud answered were about Harry and Karen, saying that “they stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was.” Slightly wretched? They would have nailed that, too.)

The Song Of Lunch (2010)

While Britain is positively overrun with charming actor collaborations that have become their own shorthand, the majority of those are comedy duos; few carry that unspoken, staunchly unexplored sense of might-have-been that Thompson and Rickman do. No surprise, then, that The Song Of Lunch (adapted from Christopher Reid’s poem) feels in some ways like the world’s biggest wink: Rickman plays a self-absorbed publishing type who reunites for a meal with the one who got away, to hash out old feelings, poke the bruise of what went wrong, and perhaps rekindle an old flame. (How meta is it? The cameo of Thompson’s novelist husband is none other than real-life partner Greg Wise.) The artistic experiment is less successful than it could be; living in Rickman’s head for 50 minutes turns out to be a slightly suffocating perspective. But their self-deprecating commentary on the passage of time and the connection that remains despite everything is, in the film’s best moments, like voiceover over what we already hope we know. It’s a pair of seasoned performers coming together to trade on nearly two decades of friendship; the result is, almost by accident, one of their most affecting collaborations.