The Siren starts by admitting that she rented Truly, Madly, Deeply some twenty-odd years ago only because she had a raging crush on the late Alan Rickman. (How the Siren hates having to put “the late” in front of that name.) She’d flipped for him, like most of the women and a good many men in the film-watching world, in Die Hard. That lean face, that lustrous voice, that walk that made you yearn to see him cross a room, headed straight for you. OK, he was playing an armed robber, and a notably ruthless one at that. But he was the biggest dose of dangerous cinematic swoon since the likes of Basil Rathbone (to whom Rickman was often compared).
The Siren’s father had died not long before she saw Truly, Madly, Deeply. So, inevitably, the movie wrecked her. The Siren’s beloved, movie-watching mother died suddenly in November, and at the moment, it’s an effort to revisit this film even in memory. But the Siren's going to do it anyway.
The story concerns a London-based translator, Nina, played by Rickman’s lifelong friend Juliet Stevenson, for whom director Anthony Minghella wrote the part. Her lover Jamie (Rickman) died some months earlier. He woke up one morning with a sore throat, and within days, he was gone. Now Nina is trying to get on with it, but in most ways, she can’t. She's a blubbering mess every time she sees the shrink. She has a new flat, but she hears Jamie’s voice echoing through it.
Then one day Nina is playing a Bach sonata on the piano, one that she and Jamie used to play together. A note from a cello sounds, and slowly the camera moves to show you that Jamie is there, playing his old instrument. At first it’s hard to tell whether the camera is showing us Nina’s daydream. And then she turns, and together with Nina you realize, no. He’s there.
The Siren often dreams about the people she’s lost. In these dreams, she always knows that her father and mother are dead, yet somehow they are back, and she accepts it in the way a dream makes you accept everything. There’s no big reunion, seldom even any discussion. The emotions come when the dream is over. When Nina turns and sees Jamie, she embraces him, weeping so hard she can scarcely see, clutching to make sure this is him, this is his body. That moment has everything the Siren would feel if she found her parents when she awoke, if she could say, “You’ve come back to me.” She would weep and clutch at them the same way. We all would.
Nina’s love has returned, and the movie traces the goofy joy that has come back with him. They play music, sing off-key serenades, talk, even make love. He stays for days, then weeks. Jamie is amusing, attentive, he’s always around. But he complains ceaselessly of feeling cold. He eats strange food. He fills the flat with pale, badly dressed friends from the afterlife who lounge around the TV, argue about whether to watch Annie Hall or Fitzcarraldo, and scatter crumbs all over everywhere. ''I don't know who these people are,'' Nina protests, to no avail. ''I don't even know what period they're from.''
And so Nina gradually recalls the things she pushed out of her memory when Jamie was still gone. He has a snobbish streak and a tendency to drone on about the Tories. He’s controlling, too. Even on loan from the hereafter, Jamie nags his girlfriend about how she brushes her teeth. He maxes out the thermostat and rearranges the furniture without asking. It isn’t that Jamie is secretly a jerk; he’s artistic and loving, and besides, all his rebukes and suggestions are uttered in that sinuous Rickman voice. But soon we realize that this scenario is wrong, that no matter how badly she wanted him back, Nina can’t be with Jamie anymore.
What isn’t as apparent, at least at first, is that Jamie hasn’t returned to comfort Nina. He’s here to show her how to do that herself. And then, he will leave.
The shot of Alan Rickman as Jamie, watching Nina through a window as she walks into what will be the rest of her life, is the Siren’s favorite in all his films. (And brother, the Siren has seen a lot of Rickman. That crush is still with her, and always will be). Rickman was never maudlin. He isn’t prompting the audience to pity Jamie or marvel at his sacrifice. In his face, and his wave, and when he turns back to his ghostly friends, Rickman plays the truth of this supernatural, impossible moment: Jamie still loves Nina, and from wherever he will spend eternity, he wants to know she is fully living while she’s alive.
Most of us believe art isn’t didactic, much less therapeutic. And yet there are movies like Truly, Madly, Deeply that tell us things, or perhaps affirm truths that we already know. That whatever plane the dead move to, no matter how cruelly or how soon, that is where they have to stay. That even if we could call them back, in a deeper sense, we couldn’t. When she first saw this film, the Siren thought of Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and how the heroine Miranda faces the pitiless finality of death:
If I could call you up from the grave I would, she said, if I could see your ghost I would say, I believe…‘I believe,’ she said aloud. ‘Oh, let me see you once more.’ The room was silent, empty, the shade gone from it, struck away by the sudden violence of her rising and speaking aloud. She came to herself as if out of sleep. Oh no, that is not the way, I must never do that, she warned herself.
Anthony Minghella’s film makes the same point as Porter’s tragedy, only with comedy and hope. Surely the people who knew Minghella turned to Truly, Madly, Deeply after he died of a brain hemorrhage, age 54.
Alan Rickman, so precise and intelligent an actor, must have known Truly, Madly, Deeply was both catharsis and comfort. But it isn’t a good one to see when grief is fresh, or at least the Siren won't do that. After time has passed, and you’re trying to find your way forward, the film is beautifully and exactly right.
Maybe next year, Mr. Rickman.