The wild, impressionistic view with which writer Dennis Potter assails the so-called age of reason in Mesmer seems barely containable on the bigscreen. And if it were not for the grounded, eccentric title performance by Alan Rickman, one imagines the entire film might defy gravity and spin out of earthly orbit.
Biography is the least of concerns in the film, which focuses on a few short years in the life of the 18th-century medical radical who ventured into such areas as hypnosis and harmonics before they had names.
The drama and humor come from the threat he poses to the establishment. Mesmer truly has the esteemed Viennese doctors working overtime to explain away his success. Aside from the cat-and-mouse game that structures the pic, Potter sullies the notion of reason and passion being wholly separate entities in Mesmer’s questionable doctor-patient relationship with Maria Theresa (Amanda Ooms), the blind daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Rickman effects an eerie, otherworldly quality in his role. Support cast is uniformly strong, with Jan Rubes, normally cast in fatherly roles, chilling as the chief nemesis. Ooms is a striking presence in her first major English-speaking film.