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 of Alan Rickman , one imagines the entire film might defy gravity and spin out of earthly orbit. The film is a non-stop assault of contradictory tones, wicked asides and outrageous style. It’s a viewing challenge akin to an obstacle course, and that will surely limit its theatrical prospects — especially stateside — though it unquestionably has a strong, rarefied appeal.
Biography is the least of the 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 comes from the threat Mesmer poses to the establishment. He truly has the esteemed Viennese doctors working overtime to explain away his success with supposedly hopeless cases, employing methods the “enlightened” folk feel are only a short step away from devil worship.
It’s evident at the same time that the good doctor is no saint. His code about suffering is simple and goes against the grain of his era, which lived (and died) by
the practice of bleeding when all else failed. He intrinsically likes the notion of being the square peg in the round hole. There’s no doubt his vanity can amply withstand the attention — both good and bad.
Aside from the cat-and-mouse game that structures the piece, 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, she is a local celebrity for her almost professional recitals. She’s also prone to seizures, and when Mesmer calms her at a concert by will and the laying on of hands, she insists he pay her further attention.
The healer’s own loveless marriage only enhances the situation. The growing attraction — perhaps influenced by the moon and tides — to Maria Theresa provides the excuse to finally banish Mesmer.
Ironically, his next stop is Paris where, rather than a clientele of beggars and the poor, he becomes a court favorite.
Rickman effects an eerie, otherworldly quality in his role. It’s all a front, though, for the man is from humble origins and totally breaks down in the face of love. He is, excuse the expression, mesmerizing.
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.
Director Roger Spottiswoode wisely sticks to the themes and ironies of Potter’s script. The approach is more poetic than narrative, held together by the central performance. Tech credits are strong, though the images tend to lean toward the dark side.
A fitting testament to the late writer, “Mesmer’s” tale is rife with contemporary resonances that make the already unsettling material even more haunting. It should hit just the right bell in arthouses and ancillary markets.