Film Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wonder Woman gets a real-life origin story in the bold, compassionate, sexy 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.'
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2017 is the year of Wonder Woman. Despite being history’s most iconic female superhero, it took until 2014—with a glorified cameo in The LEGO Movie—for the Amazonian warrior princess to finally get her big-screen debut. (How many movies have Superman and Batman been in, again?) Three years and one supporting role in Batman v Superman later, and the great WW is in four films in a 12-month span: Wonder Woman, Justice League, The LEGO Batman Movie and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. Barring a standout performance from Justice League, out this November, Professor Marston will come in at the top of the heap.

To clarify, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is less about Wonder Woman herself than the man who created her—Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans)—and the two women who inspired him, wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their shared mistress Olive (Bella Heathcote). Though “mistress,” in this context, implies a level of seediness that wasn’t really there: William, Elizabeth and Olive were in a healthy polyamorous relationship for years. Oh, and the three of them were also into BDSM. More than that, Marston conceived Wonder Woman as no less than a tool of psychological propaganda, a way to get his ideas about bondage and the superiority of women to the masses. Did I mention that William and Elizabeth created the lie detector test?

Why hasn’t this story been told already?

Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing that the story of William, Elizabeth and Olive ended up in the hands of writer-director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., “The L Word”). A romance involving polyamory, bisexuality and kink could easily have gone the route of le scandale, but Robinson honors her convention-defying subjects with an approach that prizes empathy and respect over titillation. Which isn’t to say that Professor Marston isn’t a sexy movie—more that its sexiness (which is ample) comes through in the sincere emotional connection between its characters.

There’s the occasional whiff of #biopicproblems in Professor Marston. Events sometimes line up a bit too fortuitously—did William really collapse right after a head-to-head with Josette Frank, the Child Study Association of America head who helped lead the charge against Wonder Woman on the grounds of her being “anti-feminist”? And then there’s the issue of William’s kids (two each) with Elizabeth and Olive, who pop up out of nowhere and age much more rapidly than their parents, culminating in an unintentionally amusing scene where Heathcote, as Olive, plays mother to an actor that looks the same age as her. If such instances prove distracting, they’re only a (very small) fly in the ointment that is an otherwise splendid, bold and emotionally resonant bit of filmmaking.

Robinson balances her three leads perfectly, getting across the ways in which the relationship of these three history-makers truly was one of equals, not a committed relationship with an attached third wheel. The storytelling is sexy and subtle, but also fun—a true crowd-pleaser, and one with a character known as the “G-String King” (JJ Feild) besides. The period detail is impeccable, as are the performances. Special kudos must be given, as per usual, to Rebecca Hall, one of the best actresses, if not the best, working today. In her hands, Elizabeth Marston is a study of complex contradictions: the most likely of the trio to offer a hearty “Screw you” to society’s rules, she’s also the one who most fears their unconventional relationship being exposed, because she—unlike William, privileged due to his statue as a male, and the somewhat naïve Olive—knows exactly what she stands to lose if outed.

Professor Marston being both a deftly told period drama and a groundbreaking portrayal of a sexual arrangement not often seen in film should be enough to get butts in seats, even the butts are of those who don’t particularly care about Wonder Woman. As an added benefit for Wonder Woman fans, however, Robinson’s film shines a compassionate light on what the character stands for: living your truth at all costs.

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