MADLY, DEEPLY: THE DIARIES OF ALAN RICKMAN, with a foreword by Emma Thompson (Henry Holt and Company, 320 pages). $39.99. Rating: NNNNN
Depending on your age, Alan Rickman (1946-2016) will be the slow-talking, villainous Hans
Gruber in Die Hard, or perhaps the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham prepared to carve your heart
out with a spoon in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. For a different audience he is the bewigged and beloved Snape in the Harry Potter franchise.
For me, he’s the thoughtful ghost who warms his hands opposite his grieving girlfriend played by Juliet Stevenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply, not to mention the world-weary darkly ironic Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest, and the philandering husband to Emma Thompson in Love Actually.
The selection of diary entries is edited by Alan Taylor, a discerning sampling from more than a
million words scribbled from the 1970s through 2015 to create a book that is perhaps 1/10 that
This amuse-bouche tells the story of what it meant for Rickman to be “one of the most
fêted and admired actors” of his time both on stage and on screen, and a man for whom the craft
was “a portal to a greater understanding of what it means to be human.”
In her foreword, Emma Thompson notes that her friend’s “generosity of spirit was
unsurpassed.” They worked together many times. He was her Colonel Brandon in Sense And
Sensibility, the Ang Lee-directed Austen adaptation that earned Thompson her screenwriting
Academy Award. After they wrapped that shoot, he joined Thompson and her husband on an
invigorating cliff walk where Rickman delighted, “England, my England. So beautiful… Emma
still likes to be the Boss.” She and her mother Phyllida Law starred in Rickman’s directorial film
debut The Winter Guest, and the two played a couple on the cusp of marital crisis in Love
Actually, a perennial Christmas favourite.
There are endless insights about friends and fellow actors, including Daniel Radcliffe, who is
“sensitive, articulate & smart,” and Ian McKellen, who is “the best travel companion – funny
and generous and curious and as clumsy as me with his fruit juice all over the seat.”
Irish novelist Edna O’Brien gives him her manuscript about Byron, which is “like the craziest fiction.
Like someone made a mistake and shuffled two or three lines together.” When she telephones him to
say her publisher does not want the book, Rickman observes, “The casual cruelty of it is, of
His instincts about film seem peerless. Of Soderberg’s Erin Brockovich, he writes, “everyone…
clearly happy about working with such [a] meticulous, observant, subtle director. And it’s about
something.” Of The Shawshank Redemption: “Expertly done… not a foot wrong. Classy.” But he’s
irked by the too-immaculate hairdos of the inmates, wondering, “When will a director tell a hair
person to STOP tidying everyone up.” On seeing a four-hour assembly of Anthony Minghella’s The
English Patient, he notes, “Absolutely exhausting, but riveting, too, in terms of storytelling,
coverage, shot-making, acting… It confirmed what I thought when I read the script – this film
will be made in the editing room.” And, it was, by the esteemed Walter Murch.
Rickman had Toronto connections, including David Cronenberg, with whom he lunches,
remarking, “They say that the atmosphere on his set is always ace and I can believe it. Charm
and good humour in spades but unerring eye for the specifics.” That same evening in 2004 he
goes out for drinks with playwright David Young and they are joined by novelist Michael
Ondaatje. Rickman is at TIFF for A Little Chaos in which he plays Louis XIV and also directs,
co-starring with Kate Winslet.
The screening at Roy Thomson Hall fills him with joy: “At the end, after such tangible silence and laughter that came from the whole house, from people who were listening, 2000 people stood and clapped loud and long. Total, uncluttered acclaim for something that had reached them very directly.” In May 2012, he performs poetry at Massey Hall when Leonard Cohen is awarded the Glenn Gould Prize, confessing he feels “extremely alone surrounded by all these musicians, but an unforgettable experience walking on to that stage, and that reception. The poems work perfectly and L.C.’s words were powerful in my head.”
Rickman’s words themselves will be powerful in your head, too. And there is a desire to know more, to know what he refers to as “the coded details and the sharp thoughts hidden between the safer lines,” when he looks back on his earlier diaries that he believed were “much more naked.”
On July 14, 2015, Rickman is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, then, as now, incurable. The
entries shorten in what becomes the last six months of his life. Yet he and his long-time love
Rima Horton travel to New York that November for the memorial service for Mike Nichols, and
he has a late November lunch back in London with Edna O’Brien, who continues to amuse him.
On November 30 he goes to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) to record narration for
the Glenn Gould Foundation, his final job.
In her moving afterword his widow remarks how in the last two weeks of his life in palliative
care his hospital room became a salon with friends alighting and laughter reverberating, Alan in
bed “but always a major voice in the proceedings.” Rima is with him when he dies on January
14, 2016 and explains, “He wasn’t in pain. He just went.”
Rickman planned his own funeral which was held at the Actors’ Church in London’s theatre
district, where he had played in Private Lives and Antony & Cleopatra, among many others. The
service finished with everyone singing The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.
Emma Thompson reminds that “the trouble with death is that there is no next.” No, there isn’t.
But we are lucky to have Rickman’s private words and his body of screen work to sustain us.
And, there is joy in that company.
Janet Somerville is the author of Yours, For Probably Always: Martha Gellhorn’s Letters Of Love
& War 1930-1949, available now in audio, read by Tony Award-winning Ellen Barkin.