It must have seemed like the perfect time for this movie. Coming just after the huge success of the Wonder Woman movie, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women explores the birth of the character. However, despite some decent reviews it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office and got none of the award love it was probably hoping for.
The Professor Marston of the title is William Moulton Marston, a psychology lecturer at Harvard in the early 1940s, whose theories include trying to promote better equality between the sexes. His smart and forceful wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is well aware of the era’s gender issues, as Harvard won’t give her a doctorate because she’s a woman.
William starts to take an interest in one of his students, Olive (Bella Heathcote). Despite knowing how society would view them if they knew, a polyamorous relationship develops between William, Elizabeth and Olive, with all three sexually involved with one another. With children becoming involved and neighbours uncertain about what is going on in a house with two women and one man, the trio’s unconventional lifestyle puts increasing pressure on them, but also leads to the birth of a female comic book icon.
The film has drawn the ire of Olive’s granddaughter, who took exception to the idea that Elizabeth and Olive had a sexual relationship. That’s despite the fact that after William died, they lived together for another 38 years. Admittedly writer/director Angela Robinson’s screenplay is based on a fair amount of speculation, but it’s certainly not outside the bounds of possibility and allows the movie to speak to the issues of modern age as much as the past.
Robinson tries to tie together a lot of ideas, attempting to show how the differing personalities of the women in William’s life informed the creation of Wonder Woman, as well as ideas about how S&M kinks in the trio’s love affair made it into the comics. Pulling together themes of sexual freedom, dominance and submission and love defying convention, it’s a movie that attempts to juggle a lot of balls and unfortunately it doesn’t always do it perfectly. There’s a tendency towards trying to make everything fit together a little too neatly.
More problematic though is that in trying to say that just because something isn’t typical it’s not abnormal, there are times when it makes the polyamorous trio’s relationship seems oddly pedestrian. Likewise, despite hinting towards strong passion and erotic charge between them, it sometimes has difficulty dealing with that passion. Atypically it’s actually better at building the relationship between the women and their connection than it is with the man involved, to the point where he sometimes seems slightly irrelevant. Overall thought the relationship between the three of them is presented as valid and having a greater purity than much of what’s going on around them.
This is partly because Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote are so good, with Hall in particular putting in a barnstorming performance as Elizabeth. She’s a fiercely intelligent, modern woman fighting a patriarchal system. However, while she pays lip service to defying social convention, her real battle in the movie is against her own ingrained puritanical streak and an internalised bi-phobia that she’s initially happy to blame on others. Her journey is by far the most interesting, learning that dominance and submission are more complex than she initially thought, while also being more clear-eyed about others motivation than nearly anyone else (which leads to the wonderful line, “When are you going to stop justifying the whims of your cock with science?”).
It is a bit of a shame that it doesn’t all come together a little better as it’s a fascinating story. I couldn’t help wonder whether the admirable desire not to sensationalise and seem prudish about this relationship between three people, ended up with the film coming a little too far on the safe side.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac