Let’s be honest: the quality of a movie doesn’t matter when Alan Rickman is the villain. Although one look at his diverse resume proves he played against type more often than not, few actors epitomized all flavors of evil — banal, Satanic, tormented, even silly — with as much nuanced distinction and delectable menace. Rickman was a human panoramic of unforgettable qualities. An all-encompassing presence, the melodically measured but scathingly sharp diction (that often mimicked, instantly recognizable, and semi-scientifically proven “perfect voice”), and an uncanny ability to elevate every production. Who cares whether a movie is good or bad when it’s anchored by a man with more talent in his little toe than some artists achieve in a lifetime?
That’s certainly the case with Quigley Down Under, a competent Neo-Western with a well-intentioned message and luscious cinematography. Formulaic execution need not automatically equate to a poor viewing experience, but even with Tom Selleck (hot off his television stint on Magnum, P.I.) stepping into the stirrups and rifles of an upstanding, moralistic cowboy, the film lacks a defined identity. It’s a lighthearted ride that hits the necessary aesthetic marks of a classic Western, but fails to leave an impression.
As if those factors might affect an actor of Rickman’s caliber! Pish-tosh. If Quigley‘s script underutilizes the sheer volume of Rickman’s talents, no problem. He wrenches more out of the writing because that’s the calling card of a Shakespearean stage actor. Thanks to his well-honed instincts and decades of experience, Rickman sinks his eager teeth into a nastily nefarious role by upending expectations. He breathes dimensionality into the spaces between dialogue. Undoubtedly, he steals the show out from under Selleck’s cowboy boots, and critics agreed: he won a London Critics Circle Film Award for his work in an otherwise unremarkable movie.
‘Die Hard’ Kicked Off Alan Rickman’s Villainy
When Quigley Down Under was released in 1990, Rickman’s career was in a transitional upswing. As a character actor already in his 40s, he took the slow-but-steady path to fame rather than dominating the blockbuster scene — despite making his film debut two years earlier with a little action movie you might have heard of. Die Hard‘s Hans Gruber strolled out of a van rocking an expensive suit and the intelligence of a serrated blade, and audiences wondered how an actor already this imminently capable materialized out of thin air. Only Rickman could have birthed one of cinema’s most influential villains right out of the gate.
But Rickman wasn’t the blockbuster type. He built his resume through consistent work in independent-minded films. 1990 also saw him star alongside Juliet Stevenson in the British romantic dramedy Truly Madly Deeply, which received a rapturous reception from the art house movie scene. 1991 would bring Close My Eyes and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the latter of which won him the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor. From there, things picked up speed and Hollywood typecast him as the suave, calculated villain to end all suave, calculated villains.
Rickman’s Villain in ‘Quigley Down Under’ Is Based on History
Roles like Quigley Down Under didn’t dissuade that mental image. Selleck stars as the semi-titular Matthew Quigley, an American cowboy who travels to 1860s Australia for a potential job. Quigley is a gun-for-hire and an unparalleled marksman, but within the ever-evolving and revisionist nature of the Western canon, he’s morally upstanding to a fault. In direct contrast is his would-be employer, land baron Elliott Marston (Rickman). Australia was still under British rule at the time, and Marston domineers “his” property — and people — with a colonizer’s categorical arrogance.
Combined with that egotism is the unsettling charm typical of Rickman’s antagonists. The sharply-dressed Marston (black clothes from head-to-toe, befitting a proper Western baddie) presents a facade of gentlemanly courtesy, but a grating sense of wrongness taints the surrounding air from the beginning. Once Marston drops the act and lets his malevolence seep through the cracks, he’s already sprung the trap: he wants Quigley to assassinate Aboriginal Australians. A quietly infuriated Quigley declares war. Even after Marston leaves him for dead in the desert, Quigley won’t be sated until he’s eliminated such repugnancy. The showdown is inevitable, with Quigley picking off Marston’s henchmen along the way. One of whom happens to be fellow villain king Ben Mendelsohn in an early film role…the prodigy learned from the master!
The script has no intention of painting Marston in any light other than despicable. In fact, Rickman was interested in the role because of its historical accuracy. The British government’s “pacification by force” rule allowed landowners to murder Aboriginal Australians at will. Rickman was a political activist, and in a promotional interview for Quigley, he critiqued Britain’s historic and ongoing colonialism without acting like a White savior — a tired trope the film tries to avoid but doesn’t quite manage.
‘Quigley Down Under’ Marked a Turning Point in Rickman’s Career
Since Marston is a posturing racist with no redeemable qualities and a member of the “villains so idiotic, they get themselves killed” group, Rickman plays those aspects straight. He makes no discernible attempt to understand, sympathize, or soften his character. One can’t comfortably call Marston an enjoyable villain, except Rickman chews impeccable scenery while spinning the legendary charisma that oozes off every eyebrow twitch as smoothly as melted butter. Watching the actor metaphorically twirl his mustache is as satiating as seeing Marston get his comeuppance.
And much like Rickman’s career was evolving, this performance drew from his past work while foreshadowing his future. Due to his trademark style, there are obvious technical similarities between Marston and Hans Gruber. For one, Marston embodies a predator’s stillness, his murderous intent permeating the air. He presents a chilling and undeniable threat, especially since Marston casually dispenses violence. Bloodlust is routine behavior for him.
Yet in a fascinating choice, Rickman plays up Marston’s idiocy until it teeters into comedy. It’s not the absurd frenzy he’d deploy in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but Rickman makes sure the audience knows that Marston’s only a danger because he’s an egotist with access to power. (Which is always a legitimate and relevant danger.) Once Quigley gains the upper hand, Marston’s initially frightening demeanor corkscrews into mockery without trivializing the historical violence he represents. He’s a character who deserves humiliation, and Rickman lets loose with a delightful vengeance. An exasperated Marston trounces around like an angry bird with its feathers puffed out. It’s hopelessly hysterical and a reminder of how well Rickman’s unique sensibilities transferred into comedies.
For Quigley Down Under, as well as Truly Madly Deeply, Robin Hood, and Close My Eyes, Rickman won British Actor of the Year at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards. The organization has existed since the 1920s and recognizes British/Irish contributions to film while also awarding artists like Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, and Quentin Tarantino. Other recipients of the Best British Actor award include Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins. That’s not a win to sneeze at. Rickman’s trophy put him among the same high company who would mourn his sudden passing and celebrate his legacy decades later. By all accounts, he was a kind, self-effacing, and generous man, one whose impact on audiences and fellow actors can’t be quantified. Quigley Down Under proves no performance was phoned in or without heart. Alan Rickman elevated everything he touched, even a small, mediocre Western.