Complex Characters

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There are only a handful of actors and directors that immediately catch my attention. With the latest Robin Hood movie, I didn’t even have to see a preview. All it took was a poster listing Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and Cate Blanchett. I knew that (a) I had to see it, and (b) I would love it.

(For reference, see Gladiator and A Good Year — two of Hubby’s and my favorite movies of all time.)

On Saturday, we finally got the opportunity to drop the kids off somewhere and catch a date night at the theater. Not only were we not disappointed, but everybody who has also seen it says, “Wasn’t that amazing? Didn’t you love it?”

For me to really love a movie, it has to do everything right: cinematography, development and pacing, acting. And in this movie, one aspect I really found myself loving was the complexity of the characters.

Unfortunately, for any of my analysis to make sense, I’m going to have to spoil a few things. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET, KEEP READING AT YOUR OWN RISK!

The first part that won me over was when Robin does the guessing game and Little John accuses him of being a cheat. When Robin threw that punch, I knew I’d like him. It was a character flaw that made sense: his sense of honor had just been challenged. He probably shouldn’t have punched the guy. He probably should have “let bygones be bygones” and all that. But that punch showed us he’s human.

Shortly after that, I loved the whole sequence with King Richard. We know that everybody likes him, but we’d already seen that he could be a little grouchy (complaining the soldiers were too loud). When he goes out looking for an honest man, finds Robin, listens to Robin’s very heartfelt, moving speech about the massacre, and then throws Robin and his three associates in the stocks, I appreciated his character.

Who wants a boringly likeable king? Where’s the fun in that? So much better to have a well-liked king with flaws that keep you guessing.

But the character I ended up loving best was Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Prince/King John.

"Still of Oscar Isaac in Robin Hood," photo credit: David Appleby — (c) 2010 Universal Studios

We meet him as his mother walks in to break up the affair he’s having with a French princess right in front of his English wife. And I loved that in that very first scene, he shows us what he’s made of. He doesn’t want a barren English wife, especially since Richard has no heirs, either; he knows that a French wife will make a better alliance; and he knows that the feisty personality of the woman in bed with him will make a better queen than the squeamish one outside the door. He might not be a very moral character, but he’s complex in a way we can respect.

And his complexities showed up again and again.

I loved the scene where his French queen now has to convince him of the plot against him — how he ranted and toppled furniture and scared her to the point that she threatened to kill herself, but then he apologized with such sincerity and kissed her with such feeling.

I loved how he resembled Richard now and again, like in how he dealt with William. He discarded William, then realized William was his true friend and sought him out, only to spit on William’s advice and ride off, only to show up at the council of the barrens and take William’s advice after all. It showed that he was stubborn and hated to be told he was wrong as much as Richard had hated that, yet he was reasonable enough to see the sense of things eventually.

I loved how he could be likeable when he chose to be, like his line, “I can do better than nod,” or when they’re going into battle: “It’s my first time. I shall lead.”

And I loved how, in the end, he stayed true to his nature, hating the barons for trying to take away his “God-given” powers as king and not caring what promises he’d made to them, ignoring his wife’s warning hiss: “John!”

Complex characters are what drive the best stories because their choices — a combination of good and bad ones, whether they are the “good” guys or the “bad” guys — create the twists of the plot and keep us guessing about whether or not things will turn out all right.

Who are your favorite complex characters, from movies or books or TV, and what are your favorite scenes exposing their flaws?

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6 responses »

  1. I love Gladiator. It is one of the most amazing movies ever. I always cry when I watch it which is generally whenever it is on TV. Which is sometimes A LOT. My favorite it the very last scene with his friend who says… well, you know what he says. “But not today…” Perfection!

    Anyway, this is just me rambling. How was Beatrice and Virgil? I am waiting for it to get marked down a bit before I purchase it but I am excited about it. I love Yann Martel’s style. It is so unique.

    Thanks for lending me the books. I finished The Dark Divine. I am really into Water for Elephants but I am weird and I am reading a couple books at once lately so it is taking a bit longer. I finished The Virgin Suicides yesterday and, unfortunately, American Psycho just before that. I am not a fan of that book. It is just gross. I get all the meaning and whatnot about the state of capitalism and greed in America but… ick. That is a book that I almost just stopped reading but it is hard for me to do that. I get the “I-gotta-know” bug very easily.

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    • I love it when you come and leave big comments on my site. It’s so fun to hear you going off about books. I actually haven’t read The Dark Divine yet, so you’ll have to tell me what you thought.

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      • Sorry! I always mean for them to be pithy and to the point but apparently I need to revisit the definition of ‘pithy’ since I always seem to fail on that count!

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        • LOL. I’m the same way sometimes, especially in emails. People will send me one or two sentence emails and I end up replying with huge paragraphs.

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  2. And – I totally didn’t answer your questions.

    My favorite characters… I love Severus Snape. I realize that I am not alone on this one but hear me out… he is AMAZING! He is written so well, you are never quite sure where he stands but when the story reaches the Snape conclusion you can see that everything makes perfect sense. That is hard to pull off. I also love Levin from Anna Karenina and his development along with Kitty and how they are the exact opposite of Anna and Vronsky’s deteriorating relationship. Lestat from the The Vampire Chronicles is a good Villian/Hero. He has a quite a flair about him. House… I know it’s a TV show but he is the best and most hilarious anti-hero I have ever encountered in any story-telling medium.

    My all time favorite character however is Scheharezade. For reasons that I think will be obvious to you since you are a writer/racconteur as well.

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    • What I love about Scheharezade is that she is so clever. I adore characters who can make other characters think they’re normal, just going along with things, and don’t seem rebellious when really they have their own quiet agenda to wreak havoc or whatever. I’m trying to make my main character like that — a quiet, clever rebel — but it’s harder to pull off than I thought!

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