Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote
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…uses the template of the traditional biopic to put forward “non-traditional” gender roles…
In the late 1920s, Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are teaching Marston’s controversial psychological theories and working on their prototype of the lie detector at Radcliffe College, when they recruit student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a teaching assistant. The three of them build a relationship based on mutual respect, which quickly turns into a love affair. Before long they are living in a polyamorous relationship, which turns them into social outcasts struggling to make ends meet. That is until Marston, motivated by the twin aspects of the women he loves and his burgeoning interest in bondage, creates the comic book character Wonder Woman, to provide the world with an inspirational female figure in order to break down gender stereotypes in mid-20th century America.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is, from the bottom to the top, a very traditional biopic. It is a slick, costume heavy period drama that we have all come to expect these days from an “inspired by true events” prestige film. In terms of form there really are no surprises to be found here, however, it is in the content that the film diverges from what most audiences would be used to. There is a moment late in the story where Marston, in reference to Wonder Woman, claims comic books are the perfect populist medium with which to expose audiences to an idea they might not entertain in any other circumstance, and, in turn, writer/director Angela Robinson uses the familiar biopic style to champion fluid gender dynamics and pansexuality, which even in this day and age struggle against bigotry and small mindedness.
Marston’s creation of his iconic female superhero is thus not the entire focus of the film. Robinson is much more interested in the Marston/Byrne relationship and how it fed into the ideas around Wonder Woman and it is all the stronger for it. The title may suggest Marston is the lead and the women in his life are merely his cheerleaders but, refreshingly, all three are presented as and treat each other as equals. After an initial trepidation, they quickly develop an intimate relationship that is open, honest and completely healthy, if unconventional. They must hide the true nature of their relationship from the world at large, but Robinson goes to great pains to present the world as wrong and not the love between consenting adults. When Marston discovers an interest in bondage and pornography, he doesn’t hide it but rather presents it to his two lovers as a new dimension in their relationship, and it is when Olive dresses in a corset, thigh high boots and grabs a golden-coloured bondage rope, that the image for Wonder Woman springs to life.
The performances by the three leads are terrific across the board. Luke Evans continues to impress after his intense role in High Rise. Rebecca Hall always gives her characters extra dimensions that bring them fully to life, whilst Bella Heathcote proves her performance in Neon Demon was no fluke, playing Olive as sincere, pure of heart, but, most importantly, a real woman who is the one to break down the cultural barriers that define what a relationship is “supposed” to be. If there are any faults in the film, it does pull its punches from time to time. It feels that Robinson, in order to fit the story into the traditional biopic mould and reach the largest possible audience, kowtows to the very oppressive censorship that the characters in the film are fighting against. There are kinky and sexy moments for sure, but perhaps it could have pushed a little more in that direction to fully characterise the deeply felt love between these individuals.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a wonderfully performed and heartfelt exploration of sexuality and the need for positive female empowerment. It uses the template of the traditional biopic to put forward “non-traditional” gender roles which brings to light how much the world needs to open up to these ideas. However, it does become clear how much the world still has to learn since the film cannot go a little further in this exploration than the lightness of touch it is given at crucial moments of the characters’ sexual awakenings. As a look at the unconventional origins of the most famous female superhero of all time it provides a fascinating insight into the lives of these forward thinking and innovative individuals.