Several movies in October are running up against bad timing, including Geostorm’s “the weather is trying to kill us” plot becoming redundant because the actual weather is actually trying to kill us, and Marshall’s depiction of a sexual assault case being made even more uncomfortable given the ongoing downfall of Harvey Weinstein. But one movie benefitting from good timing is Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a biopic of William Moulton Marston, and his two muses: His wife, Elizabeth Marston, and his lover, Olive Byrne. Marston is the (credited) creator of Wonder Woman, and following the blockbuster success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, Professor Marston’s arrival couldn’t be more fortuitous.
In the late 1920’s, William Marston (Luke Evans) is a professor of the new science of psychology. His wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), is his research assistant and a brilliant psychologist in her own right, though Harvard won’t issue her a PhD—she has to settle for Radcliffe. William’s study focuses on his own DISC theory (dominance, inducement, submission, compliance), which states that through loving submission to a dominant force, peace can be achieved. At the same time, the Marstons are also pioneering the polygraph. As busy scientists, they need an assistant—enter Olive (Bella Heathcote), a wide-eyed virginal student in William’s class.
The film cuts between an interview between William and Josette Frank (Connie Britton), the director of the Child Study Association. She’s questioning the explicit sexual themes in the Wonder Woman comics, which prompts flashbacks which reveal William’s polyamorous relationship and interest in BDSM and bondage. Written and directed by Angela Robinson (The L Word, True Blood), one of the best elements of Professor Marston is how Diana’s origins are woven into those flashback scenes. Olive wears a pair of silver cuffs reminiscent of Diana’s bracelets; the first tryst between William, Elizabeth, and Olive takes place in a theater, where Olive dons a Grecian gown; and later, Olive dresses in a bustier and tiara, revealing the famous Wonder Woman silhouette.
But though Olive carries the physical representation of Diana, it’s Elizabeth who is the most complex and interesting figure in the film. She’s a woman ahead of her time, chafing against the restrictions of society, but at the same time, afraid to truly live an unconventional life. William and Olive have a kind of pie-eyed romanticism between them, but Elizabeth is the one who knows what it means to truly go against the grain, as her bursts of nerves and cruelty suggest a history of belittlement and ostracizing that drives her to protect herself from further scorn. And while it’s nice when Olive and William get along, the relationship between Elizabeth and Olive feels deeper and more meaningful, perhaps because, as women, they have more to lose and that shared risk bonds them in a way they can’t with William.
Obviously, there’s a kinky bent in Professor Marston, but the relationship between William, Elizabeth, and Olive is not lascivious or exploitative. They are genuinely in love, and open enough with themselves and one another to manage a polyamorous relationship with little internal drama. Likewise, their individual kinks are treated with sensitivity—Elizabeth doesn’t understand how Olive can want to be tied up, but once she understands Olive truly enjoys submission, she backs off immediately. Their relationship is defined by trust and respect, and the film is equally respectful, with a sincere, non-judgmental tone.
It is a little hard at times not to see William’s situation as a reward for his progressivism—he’s such a committed feminist, he gets TWO girlfriends!—but Professor Marston balances that with the real world cost of their unusual arrangement. William loses his teaching position when their affair is discovered, and later, after a neighbor walks in on a three-way, their kids are bullied at school. And at least for a little while, Olive leaves the Marstons to prevent further ostracization. William also has to see America turn against Wonder Woman when the “moral quality” of the comics is called into question. (HUAC is reaching its full power, and “moral” issues are more often than not a cover for Communist witch hunts.) So while William’s situation plays at times like the ultimate reward for being a good feminist ally, that is juxtaposed with what his non-traditional family them all, professionally and in society.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a cut above the usual biopic. The sensitivity with which the subjects are treated makes for a relatively complicated portrait, especially of Elizabeth. It’s rare to see a male character allowed to be as sensitive and emotional as William is, and though Olive is a little two-dimensional, Elizabeth is a wonderfully complex protagonist. Ostensibly, Professor Marston is about William creating a famous superhero, but really you’re rooting the most for Elizabeth and Olive to get together and make it work.