Professor Marston and the Wonder Women April 7, 2018
1 Hr., 48 Mins.
nless we’re talking about the 1970s television series or the terrific 2017 blockbuster that turned Gal Gadot into a bankable star, I know little about the cultural icon that is Wonder Woman. I suppose, then, that I was made for a movie like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), a biographical drama which details the life of the man who created the superheroine and the women who inspired him.
Written and directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., 2004; Herbie: Fully Loaded, 2005), it is a biopic of unusual beauty and wit – an old-
fashioned melodrama that genuinely cares about its fascinating subjects. Told in flashback, it is about the decades-long, polyamorous relationship between Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), a psychologist and professor responsible for the DISC theory; his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), an abrasive academic; and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a comely blonde the Marstons met while she was their student in the late 1920s. The film additionally brings up how Marston went from academia to comic-book writing, and how these people managed to happily exist amid rigid albeit unsaid societal rules.
The movie, whose factuality has been debated (some, including Marston family members, believe Olive was simply a live-in mistress, not part of a three-way relationship), spans decades, and rather ordinarily explores how Marston’s personal life infiltrated his creative one.
With Women, though, I’m not so sure Robinson was ever all that concerned with veracity. Here, it seems as if her ultimate ambition is to render multidimensional characters partially defined by their relationships to one another. Because history has more or less whitewashed any evidence of there being a polyamorous between the Marstons and Olive (I happen to think there was), Robinson not only seems inclined to respectfully delineate these people as they probably were, she also appears to want to celebrate something so routinely renounced.
By so determinedly fleshing out this relationship, which is obviously dramatized, we’re able to better understand how Marston came up with such a creation as Wonder Woman. She is practically a fusion of Elizabeth and Olive, possessing the former’s brilliance and obstinance, the latter’s resolve and aptitude. And the comics themselves often featured the sadomasochism and bondage that was routinely featured in this sexual triad’s bedroom games. Watching Women, we come to appreciate what Marston was trying to do with Wonder Woman and the fantasy world in which she lived. He sought to create a sex-positive utopia in which the patriarchy was dismantled and things would continue to function, hopefully bringing about some sort of cultural change in the process. In short, sexual kinks and feminist ideals were the driving forces behind the most famous superheroine in history.
We must remember, however, that Robinson has embellished much of the material she's working with. Evidence that there was ever a polyamorous relationship between these individuals is minimal. (Though the fact that Olive lived with Elizabeth for almost four decades is telling.) Robinson never consulted with the Marston family during production, and she’s repeatedly stated that much of what we see is interpretive. There’s a scene toward the end of the feature, for instance, that watches as the Marstons and Olive are accidentally walked-in on during a bedroom romp and are promptly kicked out of their community. There is no evidence of this ever happening. This isn't exactly detrimental to the movie, but it nonetheless doesn't sit well with me that Robinson has, in a way, made real people (and their descendents) into her cinematic playthings. So it might possibly be better to watch Women as fiction, or at least an exaggerated encapsulation of the “based on a true story” header.
As fiction, though, Women is pretty remarkable. Robinson writes these characters with a great deal of admiration and understanding, and the performers are outstanding: Evans, so often typecast as a macho man, is revelatory; Hall is fierce and scene-stealing; Heathcote is romantic and magnetic. The movie is especially good during its first act, when the Marstons are Harvard people, Olive is a student, and all are trying to sort out their progressively intense romantic feelings for one another. (The use of a lie detector is particularly arousing in some of the film’s most pivotal sequences.)
Women does lose a lot of steam once caution is thrown to the wind and these people turn their sexual fantasies into a reality. (These scenes are more tasteful and artfully sensual than tawdry; the three leads have palpable chemistry.) Once the Marstons and their favorite blonde have to make up their own version of domesticity, the film becomes traditional and reliant on a semi-anticlimactic storyline. (Which, again, isn’t necessarily historically accurate.) The feature is so divine when it’s built on tension and uncertainty of the future that we almost wish the second and third acts of the picture were abbreviated and confined to closing credit factoids, the first act stretched to feature length.
But the performers are consistently excellent, and Robinson’s writing and directing, while sometimes spotty, is still detailed and convincing. Even when Professor Marston and the Wonder Women wanders from time to time, it is never boring, and never loses sight of its compassion for its earth-shaking subjects. Perhaps it’s not the most obvious of a companion piece to last year’s Wonder Woman, but it’s one worth looking into. B
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.