2017 has seen the enormous success of the first female-led superhero film in ‘Wonder Woman’ (let’s pretend ‘Elektra’ and ‘Catwoman’ were just collective fever dreams - trust me, it’s better that way), so it seems only fitting that just a few months later we get a biopic exploring the character’s fascinating origin story. In some parallel universe, ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ could’ve been just another boring, rote tale of male ingenuity and imagination in the face of personal crisis – why hello there, ‘Finding Neverland’, ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’, ‘The Imitation Game’, and every other biopic ever made in the history of cinema (I may be exaggerating, but let’s be real, not by much) – and yes, at times, it does veer into such clichéd territory. But, there is a dash of something much more interesting hidden underneath the formula, and it’s thanks to queer filmmaker of colour Angela Robinson that it’s there.
Beginning in the late 1920s, the film tells the story of William Marston (Luke Evans), a professor of psychology teaching ahead-of-his-time theories on dominance and submission with his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) at Radcliffe College. While working on a prototype for the lie detector, the two meet student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), who comes on board as a teaching assistant, but eventually becomes the third point in a loving, long-lasting polyamorous relationship. As the three work through their own judgments and neuroses and begin to live their lives in a functioning three-way relationship – one with a healthy amount of sex, bondage and roleplay – they come up against an unenlightened society that doesn’t care for these concepts, particularly as they begin to find their way into the pages of comic books about a certain Amazon warrior.
It’s striking that though the film is ostensibly Marston’s story, and is set up as such by a framing device involving Connie Britton’s deliciously unyielding representative of the pearl-clutching Child Study Association of America, it’s so clearly infinitely more interested in the sexualities, compromises and discoveries of its female characters. Sure, Evans gives an ably charming performance in the eponymous role, but it’s Hall and Heathcote who get the meatiest material to play with. Hall in particular is such a pleasure to watch as she tears into a role that is actually deserving of her talents, as her Elizabeth is no mere supportive wife on the sidelines. In fact, it could be argued that the entire conception of her character is built around her own rejection of the “supportive wife” narrative, as we get to see Elizabeth actively scrutinising her own role in her husband’s life while struggling with a society that constantly wants to demote her in his favour. It’s excitingly rare stuff for the genre, not least of all thanks to the added element of sexual exploration that is so fundamental to the film’s narrative.
These sexual exploits are indeed crucial to the film’s success, as Robinson brings a frankness and sense of play to proceedings that allow it to become the rare film that depicts sex as, well, fun. Even more refreshing is the clear sense that a man did not direct these scenes, as nothing ever feels lascivious or intrusive, qualities that so often pop up in the worst examples of the male gaze. No, these scenes are each intrinsically linked to the characters’ respective arcs, impressively balancing three different perspectives at all times.
It’s so clearly infinitely more interested in the sexualities, compromises and discoveries of its female characters.
For all its progressive ideals, though, the film can’t quite break free of its genre’s shackles. Pacing is an issue throughout, as even though William, Elizabeth and Olive’s stories have apparently been fictionalised and streamlined, the film still seems to constantly barrel forward in order to get to the next major life event. Subsequently, there’s an odd sense of weightlessness that settles in early on in proceedings. As such, the idea that anything particularly bad or problematic could happen to these people doesn’t really feel all that possible, leaving the stakes of the situation messy at best, and non-existent at worst.
Even with these shortcomings – not to mention Robinson’s occasionally clunky dialogue, obvious structuring, and a particularly flat and unimaginative visual style – it’s hard to stay mad at a film that is so unabashedly sex-positive in a genre that rarely even has a pulse. Though it may not transcend the humble biopic, at least we can be glad that in 2017 a film called ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is more interested in the latter, rather than just the former. Hell, these days we might as well take progress wherever we can get it.