Earlier this year we got an amazing cinematic experience with the first real gem in the DC Extended Universe, “Wonder Woman”. Either by sheer coincidence or strategic timing, we also get to see a story behind the conception of the famed super heroine “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”, which, if I can jump the gun a little, is equally fantastic. This film intrigued me from the moment I saw the previews as it dared to explore the man who originated the most popular female superhero of all time and the taboo relationship he and his wife entered into behind the scenes. Daring, tasteful, and gripping, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” might have its subtle flaws, but it’s a very complete project that makes the very best of its real-life inspiration.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” chronicles the adult life of its titular Harvard professor William Moulton Marston, played by Luke Evans, who created the character of Wonder Woman under the pseudonym Charles Moulton. Before that however he was a renowned psychologist founding the study of DISC theory and producing an early example of the lie detector. But his most notorious claim to fame is his extended relationship with his wife Elizabeth Marston, played by Rebecca Hall, and his student Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote. While the events portrayed have been touted as historically inaccurate by Marston’s granddaughter, the movie explores Marston’s life with two women at the same time and how their polyamorous relationship impacted all their lives and played a part in the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman.
Historical inaccuracies aside, this film has quite a lot to say and it balances its many morals, themes, and concepts quite well. Angela Robinson wrote and directed this biographical drama and clearly had a vision for what she wanted to present. Even if Professor Marston’s life was merely an inspiration for the story the final product proves to be quite fascinating. The bulk of the film revolves around the relationship between the Marstons and Olive Byrne, a ménage à trois that actually did exist and made the unconventional family a controversial one for their time. In the film the Marstons are presented as confident individuals that challenge each other and act as rebels in America in the 1920s and beyond while Olive comes into their lives as a more polished and untouched innocence who finds new emotions and explores her desires with the Marstons.
There were a lot of things I found fascinating about this movie, but I only have so much space here. One thing I really want to drive home is how effectively this three-way relationship plays into the evolution of these characters and their attempts to buck the system while also making sense of their own lives. At its core, this is the most prominent and relevant lesson. The Marstons start off as a crude and rebellious duo. They’re ambitious and they scoff at the rest of the world for being so in line with the rules of the time, yet when they enter this three-way relationship with Olive we find that they resort to conforming to the world around them so that the world within the walls of their home can remain. With that we get three very interesting characters bound together by love and lust that are all portrayed very effectively.
The most interesting character for me was Rebecca Hall’s Elizabeth Marston who experiences the most intense transformation in the film. When we first meet her she is a very independent and self-empowered woman with an ego and a grudge against a society that refuses to acknowledge her brilliance as a psychologist. However, once Olive comes into the picture Elizabeth experiences a change in her emotional stability. She becomes delicate, insecure, and unsure and even resorts to settling for a simple secretary job to keep up appearances as she comes to accept her love for Olive and the consequences of her three-person relationship on her professional life. Elizabeth is also the most vocal of the three as throughout the film her insecurity with the world and her frustration with the status quo lead her to move in and out between her confident former self and her insecure angry self, creating rifts between her, William, and Olive and forcing her to become one of the conformists she mocked at the film’s start. Hall presents this transformation perfectly as we see a woman, during an era where women’s rights were still in limbo, who believes she knows it all and can do it all but finds out the world and society are harder roadblocks to manage than she initially believed.
On the other end is Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote, who Elizabeth initially mocks due to her innocence. Come to find out Olive is a very confident and capable young woman, despite being a submissive in the trio, and takes the world and the roadblocks in stride while her elder lover, Elizabeth, becomes frightened and intimidated by the world’s opinions. Olive embraces her newfound identity and Heathcote, who even looks innocent, plays the character with a great sense of angst and excitement at her newfound possibilities. Olive undergoes the exact opposite transformation as Elizabeth, evolving from a relatively meek and quiet young woman into a strong, independent, and ruthless lover and individual who can hold her own and refuses to let the world hold her back. To that end she is the perfect contrast to Elizabeth and helps add to the moral center of the movie.
Then we have the titular Professor William Marston, played by Luke Evans. The glue that holds this entire film together, Marston is portrayed as a confident intellectual who embraces aspects of both women in his life. At times he’s shy and unsure, and other times he is aggressive and forthcoming. Evans holds the film together nicely with an impressive portrayal of a man in a changing world, and one who is both comfortable in how the world is and supports changes he believes are for the better that challenge the status quo. He knows his relationship is taboo, but he refuses to let the world stop it. At the same time he feels powerless when internal struggles within the threesome come into play. Complex, relatable, and actually very believable, this is Luke Evans’ best career performance to date really as he finally gets to fully embrace a leading man role with quality material. Marston is an interesting individual, fighting hard for his family but also using the “Wonder Woman” comic books as a way to challenge the system and authority and open the minds of the public the only way he knows how. Most of all he is inspired by the women in his life and Evans captures this nicely by presenting Marston as a man with childlike wonder brought on by two women he believes create the perfect balance in a loving relationship.
One thing that should be said about this film is it can be an uncomfortable watch, as most great movies with a point tend to be. While previews of the film steered away from showing the more physical aspects of the on-screen relationship the film itself goes all in presenting actual erotic and sexual situations that are, to be honest, both uncomfortable and fascinatingly hypnotizing at the same time. Best of all it’s tastefully done to the point where you truly feel like you’re getting a glimpse into lives behind closed doors you shouldn’t be privy too. It also feels warranted when these three get it on because it accentuates the passion and growth these people help bring from each other and makes their three-way relationship seem all the more believable. Director Angela Robinson takes special care to focus on detail and atmosphere to make each scene count, right down to the sex scenes where Olive never really fully takes her cloths off, coinciding with her more innocent persona, while the Marston’s are more than happy to strip it down. While I can already hear the exhales of readers digging into my pretentiousness for pointing out such a subtle detail, It’s something worth noting because it speaks to the consistency of the film’s characters and the fact that I DID notice it the first time around without much effort is a testament to the film’d focus and direction.
And that to me is the most beautiful thing about “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”. Somehow it manages to be both blunt and subtle at the same time without feeling awkward. The cinematography is great, the atmosphere is detailed and well thought out, the characters and their respective actors are really into it and capture the personalities well, and it’s tasteful but unwavering in its depiction of uncomfortable and otherwise taboo scenes of erotic lovemaking that actually have a purpose in the larger story. It’s only downfall is a rushed ending, which seems to be a horrid trend as of late, that acts as a phoned in tool to resolve a conflict that was brewing the entire film. While this keeps the movie from being absolutely perfect, it’s far from enough to eliminate this film’s watchability.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” may be an acquired taste, but if you take the opportunity to see what it’s all about you might just be surprised by how gripping and engrossing this cinematic experience really is. While it does take some liberties in its depiction of the real life romance that led to Wonder Woman’s creation, the details presented in this movie do capture the essence of why the superhero is so important in the grand scheme of things to women’s culture. On top of that the film is just very well made and acted and successfully draws attention to many different themes while also presenting the audience with characters that grow and develop with each other over time rather than remaining in their stale existence for two hours. The movie’s significance and quality may be overlooked now, but in my opinion “Professor Marten and the Wonder Women” is destined to go down in history the same way Wonder Woman herself did. It will be under appreciated and underestimated at first but with much more significance as time goes on and viewers realize that this story had so much more to say than we ever expected.