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biast | by maryann johanson

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women movie review: secret identities (#LFF2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A sweet, romantic story about the polyamorous triad that created a beloved superhero… and about the power of comic books to speak to our inner lives.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Sorry, all you dudes who may have been expecting something salacious and debauched from a movie about the guy who created Wonder Woman for DC Comics. Cuz you’ve heard that he was into bondage and somehow managed to convince his wife to bring another woman into their lives and their bed: woo-hoo, threesome! But Professor Marston & the Wonder Women isn’t perverted, and it’s not pornographic, not even of the softest-core type. And this ain’t Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Thank Aphrodite. This is a sweet story about people who are in love with one another — yes, each of the three of them is in love with the other two; it isn’t just some guy with both a wife and a mistress who know about each other — and are devoted to one another. This is a story that is all about how ridiculously normal and domestic and nice they are. There are some lovely romantic scenes that are sexual in nature, but there’s nothing, you know, indecent here, and all of it is built on women’s choice and consent and pleasuretweet at every step. Even the stuff that some people might consider “kinky” is presented as just perfectly fine and nothing to be ashamed of. So sorry.

“I think we definitely need a blonde to balance us out...”

“I think we definitely need a blonde to balance us out…”tweet

Actually, lots of the details of the domestic life of William Moulton Marston — comic-book-writer pen name: Charles Moulton — his wife, Elizabeth, and their unofficial cospouse Olive Byrne are unknown, for obvious reasons: who ever really knows what goes on behind other peoples’ closed doors? So Professor Marston writer-director Angela Robinson has taken the liberty of extrapolating and imagining from what we do know. And that’s just fine. Because this is as much an ode to the power of superheroes and comic books to speak to our inner lives and hidden desires as it is a straightforward docudrama about the creation of Wonder Woman. Maybe it’s even more the first thing. Whatever the details of his life in a long-term relationship with two women, Marston’s Amazonian princess clearly wasn’t inspired only by the strength and intelligence and personal fortitude of those two women, but by the reality that, however they lived and whatever they were doing in the privacy of their home, the propriety of the day demanded that they literally have distinct public and private alter egos. The Marston-Byrneses could no more be upfront about who they really were than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince could be.

The Marston-Byrneses could no more be upfront about who they really were than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne or Diana Prince could be.
tweet

Robinson — who’s been a TV director on shows including True Blood and The L Word since her last feature, 2005’s Herbie: Fully Loaded — structures the film as a series of flashbacks as Marston (Luke Evans: The Fate of the Furious, Beauty and the Beast) is forced to defend himself and Wonder Woman to Josette Frank (Connie Britton: American Ultra, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), head of one of those organizations that wants to censor stuff in order to protect children. (The film opens with gleeful kids and teenagers tossing comic books onto bonfires, presumably at the behest of Frank and her ilk. This is happening as America is fighting book-burning fascists in World War II. She doesn’t seem to appreciate this irony.) Frank is deeply concerned — so very deeply concerned — about Wonder Woman’s skimpy costume, and the fact that she gets tied up a lot, as well as the usual comic-book violence. So William enacts for her a performance as the respected psychology professor who wants to give comic-book readers a strong heroine while sneaking in an undercurrent in feminist ideas… which, come to think of it, was itself pretty radical for the 1940s. But it’s nothing next to the fuller truth that he reminisces on, and that the film flashes back to: how he and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall: The BFG, The Gift), a lawyer, came to adopt Olive (Bella Heathcote: Fifty Shades Darker, The Man in the High Castle), one of William’s students at Radcliffe College (the then all-male Harvard’s satellite for women), as their partner and lover.

How Wonder Woman deals with men who deny her personhood and agency.

How Wonder Woman deals with men who deny her personhood and agency.tweet

Now this is an origin story!tweet How Elizabeth rankles at Harvard’s sexism in refusing to give her PhD; she won’t accept one from Radcliffe, and why should she, if the two schools are supposedly equivalent? How Olive struggles to free herself from the chains of conformity — such as an engagement to pretty, bland Brant (Chris Conroy: Two Night Stand) — and accept that she, too, craves the “unconventional life” she pegs Elizabeth as longing for. How William sees their frustrations and empathizes with the limitations placed upon them as women. (Robinson slyly makes the suggestion that the fact that Wonder Woman is constantly being tied up in the comics is not bondage innuendo meant to titillate but a metaphor for the constraints that hinder all women… one that Wonder Woman constantly breaks free of.) How the Marstons’ invention of the lie detector — Elizabeth was William’s intellectual and working partner, too — became Diana’s golden lasso of truth. (The scene in which the three of them test the lie detector is a marvelous endorsement of the idea that being honest with yourself about what you want is an excellent first step toward being happy with your life.)

Accidentally modeling a superheroine...

Accidentally modeling a superheroine…tweet

The sexual role-playing the triple enjoy here? Some of it looks like what we’d call cosplay now, when fans dress up as their favorite pop-culture characters partly as a way to appropriate their power. It’s an ironic anticipation of that that inspires Wonder Woman’s look in the comics: Olive tries on an Amazonian warrior getup for a bit of kink as she and William and Elizabeth start to explore this side of their shared sexuality. (The chunky bracelets she always wears become Wonder Woman’s wristbands.) The performances by Evans, Heathcote, and most especially Hall are full of a tender adventurousnesstweet as their characters tiptoe their way through building a relationship for which there is no cultural model… and in that they are like Diana, outcasts in a world they don’t know quite how to fit in to, with a different understanding of justice and kindness and acceptance, and they can’t even let other people know why.

This is a terrific companion to Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Womantweet of earlier this year. It’s a happy coincidence that both films have been released within months of each other — Professor Marston has been a project years in the making — but perhaps that heralds a new recognition of the values of the superhero, which are also those of the people who created her. Their success, professionally and personally, in living what they believed with integrity and honesty, is a terrific endorsement of Wonder Woman herself.

viewed during the 61st BFI London Film Festival


green light 4.5 stars

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Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (2017) | directed by Angela Robinson
US/Can release: Oct 13 2017
UK/Ire release: Nov 10 2017

MPAA: rated R for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, sex references)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Oracle Mun

    I was hoping you’d review this. Thanks! Your review confirms my interest in this movie.

  • Stacy Livitsanis

    So glad to see Angela Robinson directing another feature. Now she joins the very small group of female directors who’ve made more than two feature films. Always liked her first film D.E.B.S. Silly fun, and for once I liked the way D.E.B.S. marketing disguised the fact that it was a queer film and played up the Charlie’s Angel aspect, as maybe that had people checking it out who might have avoided it if the lesbian romance was front and centre.

    [Checks release date…] Professor Marston opens here Nov 9th. Great. I’ll definitely see it.

  • RMW

    Marston’s granddaughter has denounced the film as made-up and does not reflect the actual family history.
    “Marston claims that the film’s director, Angela Robinson, chose to completely fabricate elements of the story, and did not choose to reach out to the family before writing the script.”
    http://comicbook.com/dc/2017/10/15/professor-marston-and-the-wonder-women-plot-true-story/#1

  • The granddaughter says in the piece:

    No love triangle ever even hinted at

    between the Marstons and Byrne… except the movie doesn’t do that either. It’s not a “love triangle” in the movie. It’s a polyamorous triad. Those are completely different things.

    Anyway, I’ve said as much in the review: We cannot ever know what goes on behind closed doors. Including our own grandparents’ closed doors. It’s fair game for speculation.

    Also: that site is almost unreadable with all the ads on the page. Sheesh.

  • donnaneely

    Just saw this today, based on your reviews reassurance it was prurient. What a wonder. sorry. but it is an extraordinarily rendered love story. The women particularly are given so much space and time to express themselves in their scenes. This is unlike anything you typically see. Hall IS compelling. I completely understood why anyone would find her magnificent. The truth of the real life characters in the end did not matter to me at all. Thanks for the recommendation. Well worth the time.

  • donnaneely

    was NOT purient i meant to say

  • RMW

    Except that the granddaughter goes on to say she does know more, with “99.99% certainty” that:
    “The relationship between Gram [Elizabeth Marston] and Dots [Olive Byrne] is wrong; they were as sisters, not lovers.”
    “I spent countless hours with Gram as an adult, not as a kid. She stayed with me every year for multiple visits lasting weeks on end, year after year. We discussed anything under the sun, including the ridiculous taboos that society put on people for sex.”
    “As to arguments that the relationship as imagined by Robinson could, maybe, possibly be true: Gram & Dots not only lacked that connectivity which couples have but would have had no reason to hide.”
    “Personally, I think that it would have been nice if Gram and Dots had been lovers; to have had that extra element in their long life together. But the reality is that they lived as sisters, not lovers. Some people just don’t get that love does not always include sex.”

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/robsalkowitz/2017/10/16/wonder-women-biopic-fails-lasso-of-truth-test-says-creators-granddaughter/#39d3342d70ba

    “It’s fair game for speculation.”
    So does the film has a disclaimer saying parts of it is “speculation”?

  • This film is not a documentary. ALL dramas based on real events include some element of speculation.

    And the granddaughter also says:

    I do agree that nobody can ever say what somebody else lived, so can never swear that she & Dots never connected sexually

    So, there it is. Even if Robinson *had* reached out to the family, there still would be plenty of room for speculation. There would HAVE to be, because there are rarely records of what people said and did on a daily basis 75 years ago.

  • RMW

    Her actual full sentence was “I do agree that nobody can ever say what somebody else lived, so can never swear that she & Dots never connected sexually, but I can say with 99.99% certainty that they did not.”
    So there it is.

    And her other statements cannot be dismissed so easily:

    “The relationship between Gram [Elizabeth Marston] and Dots [Olive Byrne] is wrong; they were as sisters, not lovers.”

    “If she (Robinson) wanted to “explore her own interpretation,” she should not have used real people’s lives to sell her story. Her “source” has not been named. It could have been somebody standing in line at a grocery store for all we know. And, “room for interpretation” is what Robinson had already decided that she had.”

    “On the flip side, Robinson has absolutely nothing other than two people sharing the same roof to support her fantasies.”

    “It was a perfectly valid creative choice if she (Robinson) had not claimed that it was “the true story”. But with that sales pitch in mind, then no, it is most definitely not a valid choice. It is wrong not only to the family and to Wonder Woman’s history, but also to the public. Intentionally avoiding getting facts is a very clear choice. Hoaxing people into spending their money to see “the true story” and then handing them total fiction is just not acceptable.”

    “Personally, I think that it would have been nice if Gram and Dots had been lovers; to have had that extra element in their long life together. But the reality is that they lived as sisters, not lovers. Some people just don’t get that love does not always include sex.”

  • Bluejay

    The question of historical accuracy has been discussed here before (here and here — I miss the QOTDs!) but I have to admit I still waffle quite a bit on it. On the one hand, all art, even art about real people and historical events, takes liberties. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to expect a film that claims to tell us a historical story (especially a relatively recent one) to present that story as truthfully as possible. Of course we should be aware that filmmakers take liberties, but we also muddy the distinction between art and fact when we allow the art to influence how we think about the *real* people and events. (In this review, for instance, you write about “the values of the superhero, which are also those of the people who created her” — which assumes we KNOW about those people, which assumes that the film has been telling the truth about them.)

    I wonder if our tolerance for a film’s historical inaccuracies really depends on how favorably we view the story and its themes overall. Speculation and factual fudging get a pass in this film, but you were a lot harder on, say, American Sniper for being a eulogy that misrepresents its subject; and you take The Beguiled to task for failing to include black people in a Civil War-era story. Not criticizing, just wondering where we draw the line between “okay” and “not-okay” fact-fudging — or if the line constantly shifts depending on the artistic context.

  • In this review, for instance, you write about “the values of the superhero, which are also those of the people who created her” — which assumes we KNOW about those people, which assumes that the film has been telling the truth about them.

    Here’s the thing, though: Even if this film had depicted the women living as sisters, as the granddaughter says, the thematic points of the film wouldn’t shift much. The family *would still* have a secret to keep — that the two women essentially shared a husband — and would still be living an unconventional life. There would still be many resonances with superhero stories.

    *American Sniper* misrepresents its subject in a way that is entirely at odds with reality, in a way that completely changes what he was about. Things that were publicly known and indisputable about the subject were dramatically altered or ignored so that he came across as something he was not. It was not a matter about speculating about things that were not known. That is definitely a problem. *Marston* does not do that at all. It has not made its subjects seem to be something entirely the opposite of what they were.

    I think the line of where speculation is appropriate and where it is not is going to be different in each case.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Well, I liked it better than D.E.B.S. — which isn’t saying much since D.E.B.S. was basically an one-joke comedy which proved surprisingly mediocre once it revealed its one big twist. Of course, compared to the recent godawful release Rough Night, D.E.B.S. didn’t seem that bad but that might just be nostalgia talking.

    Anyway, Professor Marston… did give me some hope for the upcoming Strangers in Paradise film which is supposedly director Angela Robinson’s next project. But as a movie, well…

    I wanted to like it more than I did but given the fact that it basically glorified a guy who seemed more than a bit of a schmuck — and this from a guy who loved the recent Wonder Woman movie (yes, I’m aware of the irony) — I was lucky that I liked it as much as I did. I did like the way it gave the Regina Hall character her due. Indeed, I felt more sympathy for her character than any other character in the movie.

    However, the moment I was asked to take sentiments like “you always hurt the one you love,” it became obvious that this was never going to be my type of movie. Which is just as well since this movie obviously wasn’t made for me.

    I’m not sure whom it was made for but I hope whomever it was enjoyed it more than me.

    I did appreciate the irony of the movie showing a man who was all about submitting to strong female authority figures being confronted by — you guessed it — a strong female authority figure. But I can’t help but wonder how much of that irony was intended.

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