The actor Alan Rickman passed away on January 14, 2016. He played many roles—most people probably know him best as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies—but to me, he will always be Colonel Brandon, a role he played brilliantly in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). The film departs from the novel in many ways, as all adaptations do, but it remains one of my favourite adaptations of Austen, in part because of Rickman’s performance. So, I’d like to share five things I love about Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon.
First, the moment when he first sees Marianne. She is playing the piano at Sir John Middleton’s house, looking like a figure from a Sir Thomas Lawrence painting. Brandon walks in and is instantly smitten. The look he gives her ranks right up there with the look Darcy gives Elizabeth as she plays for his company at Pemberley in the BBC adaptation from 1995. Austen’s men don’t say much, so looks matter.
Second, his warning to Elinor not to wish her sister to have “a better acquaintance with the world.” This moment prepares us for an interesting backstory, and we are not disappointed. It also helps explain why he is so attracted to Marianne: she reminds him of the first woman he loved, who was “forced” into such an acquaintance. As he says, darkly, in his distinctive voice (which, by the way, has its own Facebook Page), “the result was ruination and despair. Do not desire it, Miss Dashwood.”
Third, the way he rescues Marianne from the rainstorm after she has left the Palmers’ house to look at Combe Magna from the top of their hill. This rescue parallels Willoughby’s rescue of Marianne after she twists her ankle, of course, and emphasizes parallels between the two characters. Marianne laments Willoughby by reciting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” which she and Willoughby shared at his first visit to Barton Cottage. But as she will soon discover, it is Brandon, not Willoughby, whose love is unbending. Brandon loves her even though she mocks him. He keeps her best interests at heart even when Willoughby betrays them both by seducing Beth, Brandon’s ward, and the natural child of his first love, Eliza (a storyline that is significantly altered in this film adaptation, but successfully so). Marianne marvels that Willoughby picked her up and carried her effortlessly, but of course he lets her go with just as little effort. For Brandon, on the other hand, carrying her to safety is a struggle. He arrives at the house exhausted, and falls on his knees as soon as she is safe. Connected to this rescue is a bonus favourite Rickman moment—the look on his face when Marianne awakes from her delirium and thanks him.
Fourth, the scene in which he reads Spenser to Marianne during her convalescence. Like other literary quotations in the film, it carries meaning. He lost his first love but has found it again in Marianne; she lost hers too, but finds it again with Brandon. The quote feels particularly poignant now that we have lost Alan Rickman.
Fifth, and finally, his overall portrayal of Brandon as a man of sensibility. Whereas Willoughby acts with sense, choosing money over love, Brandon acts from his heart. He is, we find out from his backstory, like a hero of a sentimental novel that takes place offstage, between the lines of the main story. Rickman’s portrayal of Brandon as a sentimental hero emphasizes why he is such a good match for Marianne. Not because his is rich, as Mrs. Jennings believes, but rather because he just as driven by sensibility as she is.