From the Archives: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women review

From the Archives: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

It’s been rather comical to watch the marketing campaign for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. From the poster, to the trailer, to the comically unwieldy title, every aspect of this release seems desperate to tap into the recent success of Wonder Woman. Well, everything except for the film itself.

In the trailer we see what appears to be Professor Marston’s muse as she dons a Wonder Woman costume. In the film we find that this is Marston’s girlfriend, who is wearing BDSM gear at a fetish party. About three feet from where she stands is Marston’s wife, also attending said fetish party, and who is also romantically and sexually linked to this young woman. The trailer further indicates that “you will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.” This suggests that the film will open our eyes to a level of understanding regarding the world’s most famous female superhero, and while that is certainly true, what is really being referenced is the fact that the original Wonder Woman mythos prominently featured bondage, dominance, submission, and sexually suggestive lady-on-lady action, none by accident. Now that you know, you won’t be able to unsee it.

Please be advised that this is not some ham-handed attempt at comical kink-shaming. Nothing of the sort. As indicated by Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, these early comic books were not some insidious airing of the authors desires so much as the author attempting to pay homage to the strength he sees in the women in his life, and how, within the framework of a polyamorous relationship, the titular ‘wonder women’ are breaking free from the rigid constraints placed on them by society.

And it was probably a bit of a turn on for him too. But whatever.

Writer/director Angela Robinson has crafted a clean, efficient flick which, despite its lack of visual opulence, exhibits a level of cinematic thoughtfulness worth noting. It purposefully exists somewhere between the soft focus of ‘high-prestige’ and the soap operatic visual flatness of a BBC program. This suits the material nicely, as does the decision to keep most of the story indoors or on campus — nothing kills a period piece quicker than the artifice inherent to poorly rendered historical set-pieces (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a movie I genuinely enjoyed, is marred heavily by such a thing).

The narrative cuts between the trials and tribulations of Marston’s polyamorous relationship and a private propriety hearing in which Marston is being grilled over the content of his comic books. The smaller inquisition sequences serve to punctuate the larger romantic plot, as each question posed – and the subsequent response – is thematically tied to whatever is being explored in main narrative. What makes this main narrative so engaging – and so unconventional – is the nonjudgmental way in which it depicts what could have easily erred into looking like a love triangle. Showing a polyamorous relationship on screen, furthermore making it the heart of the story, is relatively new ground, and if it’s not put forth with care, many viewers may find themselves at odds with it. Professor Marston runs no risk of running afoul of a broad audience in this respect. It’s very clear that the three members of this relationship are all equally invested and in love with one another – a feat of strong writing and strong performance.

Luke Evans’ star is growing, and his take on Professor Marston might be his best role yet. He channels a bit of Michael Shannon and a bit of Christopher Walken, but these are just reference points for us — he’s very much doing his own thing. Equal parts old-fashioned man’s man and progressive sexual freedom advocate, it’s a great depiction of how being manly is not mutually exclusive with overt machismo.

Rebecca Hall, as always, is so damn good that one wonders why she isn’t the leading lady in every movie ever. Perhaps it’s the fact that she is always so rooted in true-to-life characterizations that her ‘pop’ is hidden. To misquote Futurama’s God, “If you do it right, people won’t be sure you did anything at all.” She’s easy to forget, but when you think back on any of her performances it’s difficult not to be wowed. Her Elizabeth Marston is a real woman, as she should be. Her arc – from repressed to resistant to expressive – rings extremely true. Yes, I need to catch up on last year’s Christine.

Bella Heathcote plays Olive Byrne, the unmarried member of the trio, and also the catalyst for this unconventional romance. It’s her you see in the Wonder Woman costume on the poster, and it’s her classic beauty which first catches the attention of the Marstons. When she exhibits an inclination for the academic and the unconventional, lust grows into love and our story is written.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women isn’t going to slay awards season, nor is it going to reinvent the dramatic wheel, but what it will do is bring a not oft-represented type of love to the big screen with three incredible performances as its anchor. My only real complaint is that, all things considered, it could’ve gotten away with being a little bit naughtier.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women opens today in Philly area theaters.

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