Film & Television

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the Ultimate Origin Story

Luke Evans (last seen as hunky Gaston in the live action Beauty and The Beast is appealing as Professor Marston. His sensitive performance keeps the story from turning into a lurid ménage à trois fantasy. His Bill certainly enjoys his role as the only rooster in a henhouse, but he remains in awe of the two women. He believes that women are superior to men in feeling and intellect; that they should, actually, rule the world. And, he’s enchanted by his situation. “Together, you’re the perfect woman,” he explains in wonderment.

Rebecca Hall (The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is the strongest of the uniformly excellent cast. As Elizabeth, she makes the most of the film’s wittiest dialogue. “I don’t experience sexual jealousy,” she reminds Bill as he begins to moon over Olive. “I’m your wife, not your jailer.” Of course, she protests too much. In some ways, she’s the most reluctant of the players once the threesome begins to form. In other ways, she becomes the leader. And, early on in the film, she’s a convincing voice against the double standard that was inescapable in early twentieth century academia. She considers her Radcliffe degree a poor excuse of a consolation prize for the Harvard degree she feels she deserves.

Olive is played by Australian Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon). A wide-eyed and pretty blonde, her innocent looks belie her character’s willingness to take risks and experiment. Although younger than Bill or Elizabeth, Olive is an equal partner in their unorthodox household. Her pedigree, in fact, boasts feminist pioneers; her mother was Ethyl Byrne and her aunt Margaret Sanger.

The supporting cast includes Oliver Platt as bombastic comic publisher Gaines and Connie Britton in an utterly thankless role as champion of decency Frank. The sets and costumes are lovely, and the movie is filmed with the autumnal haze of memory so often used to depict the college campuses of bygone eras. It’s a nice contrast to the rather salacious subject matter, normalizing the group’s lifestyle and underscoring just how unfair any persecution of them would be.

Robinson explains, “To me, I just wanted to tell a simple love story and have it play out in an organic way. My goal for the film was not to other-ize their experience at all, to be like  ‘This is weird; this is kinky.’ I just wanted to portray what I thought it would be like for three people who love each other to come together and form this family and see their hopes and ideals realized in the Wonder Woman character.”

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women does take some liberties with the story. In reality, Bill was teaching at Tufts (my alma mater), not Harvard. And, Gaines approached him with the idea of a female superhero; not the other way around.

Bill’s real-life granddaughter, Christie Marston has more significant issues with the film. In interviews and an op-ed for the Hollywood Reporter, she insists that Elizabeth and Olive “were as sisters, not lovers.” On Twitter, she posted, “The film is not a true story. It is based on someone’s imagination not in any way related to my family.”

Whether the story is true, imagined, or, more likely, some combination of the two, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women presents a fascinating backstory for a beloved superhuman heroine. And, it’s underlying themes of freedom and feminism are timely.

Many of us had hoped that 2017 would be the year that we’d welcome the nation’s first woman into the White House. Although that didn’t happen, there is a definite movement stirring (or stirring again, depending on your perspective). An estimated half million people marched on Washington in January (and another 1.5 million in “sister marches” across the U.S. and overseas) to advocate for policies that protect women’s rights. And, there have been more than five million #MeToo tweets and posts in response to the stories of Harvey Weinstein and his alleged predatory behavior.

Last summer’s Wonder Woman movie brought in Amazonian box office receipts (more than $412 million domestically and another $409 internationally). The story behind Diana, princess of Themyscira — and, more specifically, the story of the two remarkable women who inspired her — deserves to be told. And, Angela Robinson has done a wonder-ful job with it.

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