William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is a professor at Radcliffe University, an all-women’s school associated with Harvard where he teaches psychology with his wife and research partner, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), a brilliant researcher denied the Harvard degree she earned because of her gender. Into their lives comes Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a fresh faced student who signs up to assist them with their research. William quickly begins to lust after his new student, and while Elizabeth isn’t particularly jealous, she also isn’t interested at jeopardizing their place at the university for her husband’s sexual gratification — at least until she realizes that Olive is more interested in Elizabeth than William. Rather than devolving into a love triangle, however, the three quickly realize that they all have feelings for one another, and thus begin an unconventional life together, a life that eventually leads to the creation of comics’ greatest heroine: Wonder Woman.
At times, the standard-issue ‘prestige biopic’ format does hurt the movie’s pacing and melodrama. To me, biopics tend to falter when it comes to basic issues of story structure, so enamored with covering the subject’s entire life that it forgets to focus on the most interesting aspects of it; Professor Marston definitely hits on this issue a bit. There are essentially three timelines in the movie: The first half largely tracks the unconventional courtship of the triad, the back half tracks the difficulty of living in the 30s and 40s in a polyamorous relationship, and interspersed throughout is a framing device in which Marston is forced to defend the comic’s kinky content to an advisory board led by Josette Frank (Connie Britton). And here’s where the problems come in. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tries, at various times, to be a social issue drama, a romance, a biopic, and a few other things, with varying degrees of success, and the mish-mash of all this together means that some parts of the movie inevitably drag.
But this is a blog dedicated to romance, and there’s a reason I’m writing about this film: When director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., a fantastic camp lesbian romantic comedy) focuses on the romantic and sexual relationship between William, Elizabeth, and Olive, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women positively sings, becoming one of my favorite films of the year. Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast), Rebecca Hall (The Gift), and Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon) have phenomenal chemistry, and Robinson knows how to highlight those sparks.
This is particularly true in the movie’s most innovative scenes, in which the three begin to explore BDSM and kink with one another. When their sex lives are highlighted, the movie becomes truly great. The lighting improves, the editing improves, the pacing improves; the film comes alive. There are small character moments and images from these scenes that will likely stick with me all year, moments of sublime sensuality and surprising sweetness. The film’s sex scenes are generous, erotic, and largely excellent on issues of consent. As with Desiree Akhavan’s excellent Appropriate Behavior, the sex here tells a story about the characters’ relationships with one another, its themes of dominance and submission coming out clearly in the framing and choreography of the sex.
With any biopic, there are inevitably questions about historical accuracy, and this one is no different. The film discusses at great length how private the Marstons were, how much they hid from neighbors and society, it should surprise no one that there is very little evidence as to how their three-way relationship works. This has led some scholars – including Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman – to claim that Elizabeth and Olive weren’t lovers. That said, as Noah Berlatsky points out in an excellent article at the Verge, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Olive and Elizabeth were lovers, and Lepore’s work, while quite good, is far from definitive – or provable. Biopics, it must be remembered, are fictionalized accounts; they are not documentaries. The truth is, they are figures in the past, and it is very difficult to prove or disprove who said what, who kissed whom, and how anyone felt. Normally, we trust the director’s take… unless, apparently, that take involves homosexuality.
The truth is, healthy lesbian relationships are still a relative rarity in Hollywood film, and polyamory or realistic displays of kink remain functionally unheard of. Off the top of my head, I could only think of a single other film that celebrates the complexity of non-monagmous relationships, Ernst Lubitsch’s phenomenal 1933 film Design For Living, and very few that portray kink accurartely. Robinson’s film is more explicit and more queer, and it’s a lovely step forward for cinematic representation. But more than that, it’s a lively and entertaining period romance that manages to be both charming and insightful. While the movie has its flaws, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an adventurous, queer delight. This one is absolutely worth your time.