I struggle to remember where I first heard the story behind the creation of Wonder Woman. I do recall it being told to me in hushed tones, as if the character’s origin was full of shameful secrets. I remember the tenor of the conversation being that these origins are #problematic, and thereby call into question feminists’ embrace of the lasso-swinging Amazon. But in writer/director Angela Robinson’s brilliant biopic Professor Marston and The Wonder Women, the incredible and true story of a three-way romance that birthed one of the world’s most iconic superheroes is told with warmth, humor and a sex positive attitude that smirks at such narrow-minded assertions. Simply put: Professor Marston and The Wonder Women is fierce, feminist and fantastic.
Writing under a pen name, Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) aimed to introduce complex psychological concepts and empowering messages to women through comic books. He found inspiration for Wonder Woman in the two most important women in his life: his outspoken and brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and their big-hearted and noble lover Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Over the decades, this relationship has been painted as some form of bigamy, suggesting Marston was falsely promoting empowerment publicly while playing master to his two submissive sister-wives at home. However, Robinson rejects this crude understanding of the trio’s relationship. Having spent eight years researching and developing the project, she came to understand theirs as a polyamorous romance, where each member was in a loving, committed relationship to both other partners. It’s a concept the world still struggles with today, so imagine the challenges faced by the Marston family in the 1930s and ’40s.
On its surface, Professor Marston and The Wonder Women feels like a traditional biopic. The film is shot in a warm color palette that’s gorgeous and glowing. The costumes are delicate and era-appropriate. A framing device allows flashbacks so decades can be easily jumped about, sticking only to the most formative moments. There’ are poignant close-ups of beautiful actors, and rousing speeches about love, life and society, with one turn in particular seemingly poised for Oscar attention. But just beneath the surface is something more subversive, modern and delectably nerdy.
Comic book lovers will thrill over true-to-life details that influenced Wonder Woman, as Professor Marston and The Wonder Women is littered with Easter Eggs. There are the silver bracers Olive wears, the secretary job Elizabeth takes on, the invisible jet paperweight William treasures, and, of course, there’s that lasso and themes of bondage. This bouncy biopic is unapologetically kinky, following William, Elizabeth and Olive’s journey into the backrooms of illegal sex shops, where they discover the titillating thrills of BDSM. But rather than frame these kinks as shocking, Robinson’s camera focuses not only on the details of binding and knots, but also on the excitement and arousal written elegantly on the faces of her central lovers. A gasp of surprise. A bite of the lip. An exchanged glance of anticipation. We witness their passion, and their lust is contagious, their love apparent.
“Sexy biopic” seems an oxymoron for a subgenre so notoriously staid, but Robinson manages this sensational feat with the help of an extraordinary cast. Too often romantic leads are beautiful, but have no spark. Here, Evans, Hall and Heathcote share an intoxicating chemistry that loads every scene with verve and allure. But beyond that, they paint each of these lesser-known historical figures with a radiant humanity. Evans swells with frustration as William’s theories are overlooked, his superheroine misunderstood and maligned. But at home, he’s a grateful lover and jubilant father to their children.
Australian ingénue Heathcote has oft been cast as the pretty girl in a string of movies that give her little else to do (Dark Shadows, Not Fade Away, Neon Demon). But here, she comes alive as Olive. It’s easy to imagine this sweet girl raised in a convent could have come across as flat or vapid in the hands of a lesser performer. But as Olive stands up for herself–first to her professors, and then to her partners–Heathcote layers in complexities, making clear that sweetness does not mean weakness. Olive refuses to be dwarfed by people’s expectations of her angel face, and so grows in intellect and sexuality, exploring psychology, kinks, and what can be offered by a life less ordinary.
Evans and Heathcote are excellent, but Hall is far and away the film’s showstopper. Sexist bias in universities leave Elizabeth on the fringe of academia, literally perched on the windowsill of her husband’s classroom as he lectures about their shared studies. But from the moment she opens her brightly red-lipsticked mouth and starts dropping f-bombs with the elegance and frequency of raindrops, Elizabeth refuses to be just another frustrated intellectual or nagging wife. Within moments, her ease with Evans sells the Marston marriage as one strong in friendship, passion and respect. To the world, she is a tiger, aggressive and bold. But in private, Elizabeth struggles to accept a love that could not speak its name, because it would not have a name for another 50 years! Whether matching wits with William, chiding Olive, or making love to both, Hall’s Elizabeth is mesmerizing, the center to a long misunderstood relationship whose creative bounty has been reshaping how the world views women for more than 75 years.
I love this movie. More than that, I’m in awe of it. By nestling a story of unconventional true love in the cozy and familiar package of a prestige biopic, Robinson welcomes audiences into the Marston family’s story with a graceful gravitas. She unfurls fleshed out and flawed characters with compassion and passion. She makes no excuses for their sex lives, because none are needed. She gives us a love story that’s smoking hot with sex appeal, and bursting with emotion. Best of all, she gives us a proudly queer romance that’s an absolute crowd pleaser, and easily one of the best films of the year.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women made its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest. It will open in theaters October 13th.
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