Whether it is due to complete serendipity or a pre-meditated opportunity to take advantage of what ended up being one of the most successful superhero films of this year, an origin film of sorts to the making of the Wonder Woman comics has made its way to theaters. Professor Marston And The Wonder Women (2017) is much more than I thought it would be when I caught the last few bits of the before Tulip Fever (2017). The film is very much not some jackass trying to take advantage of the success of the most financially successful female-led-and-directed movie by saying, “Hey! We wouldn’t have Wonder Woman if it wasn’t for this GOOD MAN!” In fact, it is a film written and directed by Angela Robinson, who wanted to explore the more provocative aspect surrounding the life of the Wonder Woman creator: his polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and his grad student, Olive Bryne (Bella Heathcote).
While this relationship is the front-and-center focus of the film, Professor Marston plays out as a biopic in the same vein as The Imitation Game (2014). Will Marston’s (Luke Evans) interrogation in a grey room by the Catholic Legion of Decency about the “questionable content” in Wonder Woman is used as a sort-of framing device for Marston’s life; from his work as an open-minded feminist psychology professor developing D.I.S.C. theory, through his creation of the comic and his death from cancer. However, singling out the titular professor is a bit of a misleading description of the film. Elizabeth Marston is just as central to the story as Will is, and they balance each other out onscreen as well as I’m sure they did in real life. Elizabeth is his intellectual equal, working together with Will on an early prototype of a lie detector while they support each other in professional academia. Elizabeth, however, is frustrated with her lack of professional growth due to patriarchal and misogynistic restrictions, causing her to actively resist the major changes in her life that would put her in a submissive role. Elizabeth requires cajoling from her husband and Olive to open up, both sexually and emotionally, and her character arc makes her a more empathetic protagonist than both Olive and Will. Olive unfortunately feels like a much more underdeveloped character in comparison, being pigeon-holed as the wide-eyed and pure-hearted optimist, but Bella Heathcote’s strong performance allows her to hold her own amongst Evans and Hall while giving her character more depth than is actually written.
To my knowledge, this is the first relatively mainstream film tackling a polyamorous relationship and it is handled with honesty and maturity. It’s never treated as some weird out-there thing that weird out-there people do. It’s a normal thing that anybody should feel comfortable doing if they feel inclined to do so. The ‘intellectual’ characters thankfully never make the film feel like it’s treating polyamory as some voyeuristic psychological experiment. Between the stellar and charismatic performances and the complexity given to these characters (Elizabeth especially), they all feel like real people and you can understand why they would have questions and hesitations when taking further and further steps into their sexual relationship. This makes you want to root for them, and have their professional and emotional goals work out for them. Their personal development ends up being such a major focus, albeit a very interesting one, that the external obstacles for the three of them are very forced plot devices that come out of nowhere. I don’t mind when a biopic keeps things nice and streamlined, if the story is good, but there’s very little setup for Olive’s fiance breaking off their engagement and discovering their relationship.
When I recently watched The Imitation Game, I became more aware of the issues people cite when they dismiss it as an “Oscar bait” film. Some scenes just don’t really flow together because the filmmakers focus more on grandiose themes and dramatic plot-beats around the development of the computer rather than developing or exploring the characters in any interesting or compelling manner. This ultimately translates not so much into a problem with “realism” as into one of investment. This is often the trouble biopics face when telling the story of someone’s life. How much do you tell about a person’s life? Do you focus on what they’re known for or explore their entire lives? And what about historical accuracy? Is it worth sacrificing hard facts for the sake of analyzing who a person was through what they did? Professor Marston rides very close to whatever line there is in regards to the latter. Apparently, according to one of Will’s granddaughters, Elizabeth and Olive were never physically intimate with each other and the filmmakers never consulted the family about any of the details of the film or even asked for permission for that matter. Conversely, a Verge article insists that there was absolutely bisexuality in play in the relationship and thinking otherwise would be ignoring obvious evidence. I’m more inclined to believe the family member, but I guess I also shouldn’t be surprised that details were fabricated in a fictionalized retelling of someone’s life. At least it’s not white-washed (although this movie is as white as bread) or offensive and tone-deaf. Angela Robinson was very set on portraying her own interpretation of events, which stands to reason, since she is a lesbian filmmaker whose previous films have tackled LGBTQIA subject matter. But even all the scenes having to do with the lie-detector in the first third of the film were largely fabricated! Well, regardless, this movie works fine with some exaggeration, as these dramatizations give the film its heart and charm.
I would be lying if I said that Professor Marston doesn’t have any “Oscar bait” tendencies. It’s a period story, first of all. The lighting is very dramatic, with a near-constant use of warm colors during most of the film and the use of pale colors during darker moments. Noticeable spotlights are used during the warm-color bits, and the shooting style is not very inspired except for some tastefully done sex scenes. There’s also an unmemorable dramatic score that kicks in during scene transitions, but it thankfully it cuts out during actual scenes so the emotion of the drama at hand can play out without interruption or forced manipulation. It’s a very non-challenging and unoffensive style. However, the techniques are effective in conveying the romance as the major focus and emotional draw of the film, and it’s absolutely the best part.
Honestly, a lot more could’ve been done with this movie to make the story better. This is my biggest gripe with the film. Like I’ve been saying, Professor Marston works because of how good the central romance is, but there are subordinate details relating to the romance that, if addressed, would have given the film a lot more weight and staying power. Elizabeth gets a job as a secretary after the three of them get fired from the university, but we don’t see how having this job affects her personally, even after the first half or so of the film establishes her professional frustrations with the patriarchy. The three of them have many children over the course of many years, but what if the children questioned the normalcy of having polyamorous parents? Some of these details and more may not have necessarily mattered to the admittedly simplistic story that Robinson is trying to tell, but this movie is less than two hours long and I am always one to support a longer film if it means more interesting detail.
Professor Marston And The Wonder Women may have a story framed around the creation of Wonder Woman, but I never felt that everything happening in the movie is a means to an end to get to the comic. With the exception of one scene of Olive walking past the rehearsal of a Greek play, there are no over-the-top in-your-face moments pointing to the origins of certain elements in the comic. The story develops organically. You understand why the eponymous “wonder women” in Will’s life led to the creation of Wonder Woman. They’re the heart and soul behind the character and are as much a part of the creation of the comic as he is. A lot of it has to do with his work as a feminist ally and psychologist (he pitches the comic as a way for young boys to psychologically accept submission to powerful women in their lives), but it’s interesting seeing how his time around two women with two different personalities and their foray into underground BDSM practices find their way into the stories of the comics and the character itself. Cutting to the framing device of the interrogation helps explain and reiterate these elements further, and it shows the quality of editing in this film. This framing tool makes all the elements of the story feel much more well balanced than they actually are, and at the end of the day I think the movie is better off for it. This isn’t a standout masterpiece by any means, but it is certainly a commendable effort and an enjoyable romantic drama, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes a good movie is just a good movie.
I really liked this movie, but I feel like it could’ve been a lot better. More development could have been given to Will and Olive, as Elizabeth is the only true protagonist, and more time could’ve been given to developing some of the themes at work while showing us more of the lives and personalities of the three leads. The polyamorous relationship and sexual elements of the film are handled with maturity and the film is still enjoyable and works as a boiled-down love story and a relatively bare bones biopic.