‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ (2017) | Fantastic Fest Review

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has the potential of being one of the most important films of the year. That might sound like hyperbole (which it probably is), but I do deep down believe that. How often do mainstream films deal with polyamory, bisexuality, and bondage in a way that says this is not an abnormal way to live? Never is the correct answer. So often in mainstream cinema these characteristics are linked with behavioral issues or past abuse or some other problem. The truth is this stuff is just as “normal” as any old fashioned romance out there. Writer/director Angela Robinson even crafted the film in an extremely traditional way to help drive home that fact. Ironically, that is also Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s biggest hinderance. In an effort to make Elizabeth and William Marston and Olivia Byrne’s love not as bold and crazy as everyone seems, the film itself loses some boldness.

William Marston (Luke Evans) was a psychology professor working with his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), who really should have been a professor in her own right except, y’know, the patriarchy and sexism got in the way. They are developing things such as the lie detector. They bring on an intern/assistant of sorts Olivia Byrne (Bella Heathcote), one of Marston’s students, and the three end up developing feelings for each other, resulting in them winding up in a polyamorous relationship, which naturally puts their professional lives in disarray.

Robinson obviously wanted to make this story as palatable for a mass audience as she could, which is an understandable position to take. It also was probably a necessity given she needed to get DC Comics to let her use the character of Wonder Woman, which Marston was the creator and based her on combination of the two women in his life. However, this relationship is filled with danger. The societal toll these people took for being in love was tremendous, and you don’t really feel any of it. The film plays like any other safe biopic you typically see in the fall for awards consideration. The Marstons and Byrne became pariahs, but only watching this movie, you would only slightly understand that.

Since Professor Marston and the Wonder Women does go a sweeter route, it does execute the development of the trio’s relationship very well. Evans, Heathcote, and modern cinema treasure Hall do make you root for this scenario to work, even though they don’t really have any sort of blueprint to go by. They let their hearts lead them and make you one-hundred percent believe these three people belong together. Their lives together are warm, wonderful, and sexy. What Robinson is great at capturing is the sensual passion these three have for one another, making use of necklines and glances instead of raucous, explicit sex scenes to express that. The film is R-rated and easily could have been filled with an abundance of nudity, but Robinson smartly eschews that tendency, even when the three eventually start bringing in bondage to the bedroom.

The period detail of the production and costuming is gorgeous to look at. One odd bit of design though is this story takes places over the course of twenty-something years, and there is absolutely no effort put forth whatsoever into aging the actors as they get older. I don’t know if they just had no makeup budget at all, or Robinson and company felt it best just to make these three beautiful people look beautiful at all times. It’s just odd when a character is supposed to be in his 50s but still looks like he’s in his mid-30s. It also would have helped the relationship had we seen these people physically grow older together rather just be told what year it is in a subtitle.

I had high hopes for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. The thing I did not expect walking out of a movie about a polyamorous relationship involving the creators of the lie detector and Wonder Woman would be, “That felt very ordinary.” It falls in line with movies like The Theory of Everything of The Imitation Game, where you walk out and wish these extraordinary, interesting people were given their due. No matter how truthfully and beautifully these three are played by Evans, Heathcote, and Hall (who I want to stress again is a treasure of the medium and should be in every single film), they can only do so much to elevate material that doesn’t have the bite it needs. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women may have an immediate impact on a few people who discounted polyamory as a real way people love, but it won’t have any lasting impact.

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