Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is both less and more alluringly sexy than the trailers and promotional posters would have you believe. The sexiness is less overt in that there’s really only one sex scene proper amongst Professor Bill Marston, his wife Elizabeth, and his student Olive Byrne in the whole film. Set in the costume room in the backstage of a Harvard-Radcliffe theater, the tryst is dramatically lit for flair rather than intimacy, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” booming in the background, emphasizing the novelty and excitement of the three lovers consummating their feelings for the first time. There are scenes that are more obviously erotically charged, such as Bill and Elizabeth sneaking into Olive’s sorority house to watch a pledge ritual made memorable by Olive being required to spank a misbehaving junior student. Yet it’s the smaller interactions amongst Bill (Luke Evans), Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and Olive (Bella Heathcote) that really give Professor Marston and the Wonder Women its simmering sparks and thrills: a flitting glance across the endless gulf of a picnic blanket; a shared smile that lingers too long for the comfort of bystanders; the snappy, loving rapport of a debate over whether Wonder Woman will ever get published. Ultimately, though, the film uses its highly-touted draw — the polyamorous relationship that birthed Wonder Woman! — as a vehicle for a much more sobering story altogether about prejudice, judgment, and the power of love, rather than as an opportunity to merely titillate audiences with an unconventional and unexpected relationship dynamic.
The plot of Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is fairly linear and straightforward, framed (and intermittently interrupted by) an increasingly terse interview between Professor Marston and highly distressed avatar of America’s moral authority (Connie Britton), who wants to know why his comics (aimed at children, no less!) are so provocative and sexual. Bill Marston and Elizabeth are at Harvard—he a professor, she his assistant who can’t get Harvard to give her a degree—and we see the playful, witty repartee of two brilliant people who are delighted with themselves and with one another. When Olive signs up to be Bill’s lab assistant, Elizabeth is initially hostile, but the three grow closer, build and test the first lie detector test, and find themselves falling in love with one another. At first they try to hide their growing feelings, but inevitably it’s impossible to resist. Cut to Bill’s losing his job due to the scandalous nature of his relationship with Elizabeth and Olive, who becomes pregnant; while Olive stays home as a housewife and Bill tries to publish his psychological studies with no avail, Elizabeth swallows her pride (and her extensive academic background) and goes to work as a secretary.
Once they’ve established a family in New York (with a careful lie about Olive being a widow on whom the Marstons are taking pity), they begin to incorporate bondage into their bedroom life (the infamous original Wonder Woman outfit comes from a costume Olive tries on in a fetish club), and Bill begins to write Wonder Woman, whom he sees as the combination of Elizabeth’s intelligence and humor, and Olive’s beauty and pure heart: the perfect woman. Of course, it all falls apart when a nosy neighbor stumbles upon the three engaging in foreplay in what is truly a cringeworthy scene for multiple reasons: First, because the Marstons risk losing one another and their blended family due to white-picket-fence America fearing their polyamorous relationship, and second, because it’s a thunderingly obvious story choice that really only happens for manufactured drama. Had the Marstons merely locked the front door, everything would have remained just as it was. Bill and Elizabeth send Olive and her children away to try and establish a normal life, Bill faces censorship in publishing Wonder Woman’s downright kinky stories, Bill falls ill, Olive comes to see him, and Bill and Elizabeth beg — and receive — her forgiveness.
Hall and Heathcote are particularly strong in their roles, which are by nature more complex than Evans': Elizabeth and Olive have to combat the double scrutiny and self-examination of not only being in a polyamorous relationship, but being attracted to one another as well, throwing another forbidden desire in twentieth-century America into the heady mix. Hall is, of course, an established, stellar actress with a variety of roles to her name. She undergoes the most character development over the course of the film as Elizabeth learns to trust her own feelings and give in to them, even when her genius brain is warning her against it. Heathcote’s candor, warmth, and elegance are worlds beyond the fragile wall-dressing love interest she played in Dark Shadows; as the most openly emotional of the three lovers, it is her passion and bleeding heart that light up the screen. Evans, unfortunately, doesn’t have quite the same range on display, even though Bill arguably suffers the effects of society’s prejudices just as much as Olive and Elizabeth do. He mainly crinkles his forehead charmingly and spends a lot of time urging Elizabeth to do things (or not to do things), but he just doesn’t command the film the way Hall and Heathcote do. Indeed, it is Olive’s and Elizabeth’s relationship that shows the most growth over the course of the movie, and each of Olive’s starry-eyed looks at Elizabeth is far more potent than the sum-total of the Bill-Olive arm of the triad.
What’s remarkable (and perhaps a little bit of a letdown) is that the relationship among Olive, Bill, and Elizabeth as portrayed in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women falls rather into the typical pattern of a romantic comedy-drama. We have the meeting, the courtship, the flirtation, the consummation, the arising of obstacles that threaten to tear their love apart, followed by the inevitable reconciliation. Three, it seems, is not a crowd when it comes to the conventional formula of telling Hollywood stories of falling in love, at least on a formal level. Of course, there certainly isn’t that much precedent in portraying polyamorous relationships on the silver screen with genuine love and respect, so it stands to reason that a groundbreaking film like Professor Marston would take a more recognizable path when it comes to storytelling. If anything, Professor Marston demonstrates the need for more portrayals of a diverse range of relationships and romances, because then the stories we tell will be as unconventional and original as each relationship we tell them about.
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