Friday, 30 November 2018

Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Robinson, 2017)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is film based on - or inspired by, to be more accurate - the true story of Wonder Woman’s creation by professor William Moulton Marston. The iconic character ends up as a framework in the background - and surprisingly so does Professor Marston himself (played by Luke Evans). The two loves of his life, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) take central stage in a risky ménage à trois.

Ah, biopics. Not my favourite genre - but I was intrigued to see how the polyamorous relationship would be treated in fairly-mainstream cinema, and how it would be linked to the Wonder Woman. The latter: not well, and the former: I have mixed feelings. The film's strengths can be easily flipped around to raise the question "wait-what-was-this-film-about-again?"

The story starts in 1945 with professor Marston; he is being questioned about the morals of his comic. During the interview, we go back in time to 1920s, when he and his Elizabeth met Olive Byrne as they were working in Harvard and Radcliffe (women's college). Olive grabs Marston's attention right away, and he hires her to work with both him and his wife to develop a lie detector. While working together, they become friends and ultimately something more. When Olive gets pregnant, they need to make a decision; and start living as a family. During their family days, Marston starts writing his comics.

Where performances by Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote are brilliant for their sensitivity to portray confused feelings going through the heads of the characters, the film lacks realism. Watching the movie, you are constantly reminded that this is a very fictionalised version of the real events. Yes, realism in context of the past is a slippery slope; and I do not think a biopic cannot take creative freedom. Interestingly though, the Marston offspring were never contacted about the film. And indeed - the love between Elizabeth and Olive so tenderly portrayed seems to be purely fiction, as the granddaughter of Elizabeth and William Marston, Christie Marston writes:
"We had a very close relationship. ... Silly societal taboos on sex and sexual preferences was a topic we covered thoroughly. Gram was very open-minded, and conversed clearly and freely. Gram was a firm believer that people should do whatever they damned well pleased; the only stipulation being maturity and consent. Gram and Dots [Olive] not only lacked that connectivity which couples have, but would have had no reason to hide."
What Christie Marston takes more issue with is the way creation of Wonder Woman herself is portrayed. Sure, it is fun to think that these two women were in love and professor Marston was just the third wheel; but doing so, the film also shifts Elizabeth's agency from creation of Wonder Woman, and denounces both of the ladies to Marston's mere muses which goes against their feminist views. In reality, Elizabeth was the one to tell her husband that the hero should be a woman. The way Wonder Woman has been framed as a backdrop is not strong enough to hold the balance of the premise of the whole movie.

Olive (Bella Heathcote) on the left, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) on the right.

Indeed, the indecisiveness about the story's centre makes the experience of watching the film so confusing. I am not sure if I am supposed to care about Wonder Woman or not - or care about Mr. Marston with less focus on his perspective. I am not sure if I am supposed to feel the pressure of hiding as rather than portraying ongoing pressure, we get only one very clichéd instance of backlash. The consequences do not feel severe enough to excuse and balance the drama following. I do not feel the love, when kinks are on the central stage with bizarre choice of Nina Simone's Feeling Good as soundtrack for the climax. As wonderful the song is, again the very underlined departure from the time period feels damaging to the already feeble sense of truth behind the story.

I am still not sure if the portrayal of the ménage à trois is too risky, or not risky enough. There is so much you could explore about the raised eyebrows and whispers, but all we see is a perfect happy life - and the one instance changes it all, making the reactions feel bit ridiculous; like children learning that life does not go always according to plan after all. On the other hand, the kinky sex seems like an unnecessary addition taking away from the more natural drama that could have unfolded

Where professor Marston is the third wheel in the relationship, poor Wonder Woman is literally laughed at by the two women who inspired her. I think Angela Robinson does a brilliant job at portraying Olive and Elizabeth falling in love, but she took a too big of a bite in attempting to cover this story. I would rather see her telling an untold story of a confirmed woman-woman couple in the history; there is for sure a need for more stories like that, and there definitely are some juicy stories she could play with with bit more creative freedom without losing the charm of trying to attain the elusive truth.

★: 3/5

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