DIR/WRI: Angela Robinson • PRO: Terry Leonard, Amy Redford • DOP: Bryce Fortner • ED: Jeffrey M. Werner • DES: Carl Sprague • MUS: Tom Howe • CAST: Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Luke Evans
Focusing on the polyamorous throuple between professors Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and William (Luke Evans) Marston and their assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is a study in the importance of honesty, compassion and perseverance. Elizabeth and William first meet Olive at Radcliffe College, where she volunteers as an assistant for their research on the DISC theory of human interaction. From the beginning there is an overwhelming chemistry between the three, and, despite the rocky results of a breakthrough with their lie detector, they soon open themselves up to their undeniable connection and embark on a polyamorous relationship, one which inevitably inspires the legendary character of Wonder Woman.
The depiction of polyamory – and more specifically romantic love between women – is always a cause for potential concern, specifically when the interests of a male character are also involved. The concern is often over the potential for the female participants to be reduced to receptacles for emotional labour, and screens for sexual fantasy, stripped of autonomy and painted as two-dimensional candidates vying for the affection of the man. Gloriously, this is not the case in Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman; even the ambiguity of which professor the title refers to is wonderfully clever. Rather than framing the throuple as innately jealous and inevitably self-destructive, the dynamic is presented as supportive and protective. Though the beginning is rocky and there are bumps in the road – this relationship dynamic was unheard of and classified as deviant in the 1930s and ’40s – the ultimate indication is that the three of them can only be comfortable and happy when they are all together. This isn’t to say the nature of polyamory is easy and uncomplicated, but the cinematic representation of a throuple as viable and motivated beyond male desire is rare and refreshing.
The love between Elizabeth and Olive then becomes perhaps the most important in the film, not for the sexual gratification of William, but as its own intimate and personal relationship – end credits inform that the women spent the rest of their days as a couple following the death of William in 1947. Although there is initial tension and slight cause of jealousy, Olive is open with her feelings for Elizabeth, and confesses her love for the professor before indicating her interest in William. Elizabeth is confident and rational, but has trouble admitting her emotions, even to herself. The love of Olive allows her to resolve this, and within the polyamorous dynamic, care is taken to paint the women as whole and multifaceted characters who need and love each other just as much as William. This goes beyond the tendency for female homosexuality to be used as titillation, or as a means to reassert heterosexuality; Elizabeth and Olive do not perform for William, and in turn he does not frame them as a kink. Instead, he encourages their romantic and emotional growth, reuniting them following tensions, and never challenging their autonomy.
Narratives involving same-sex love and queer dynamics often end in sadness, furthering the historic cinematic understanding that homosexuality and queerness are unnatural and in need of punishment or abjection. Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, however, pushes against this, and indicates that natural order can only be restored, and happiness only possible, when Elizabeth, Olive and William are united. For the throuple, communication and compassion are all-important, with consent an ever present and normalised factor of their romantic and sexual relationships. The thread that their unconventional love is potentially deviant is spun through the narrative, and when the Wonder Woman comics are pulled as crude by the Child Study Association of America, William’s defence of his work is also a defence of his family, and the burning of his work is also a burning of his family.
The character of Wonder Woman is explained as a fusion of psychology and multifaceted femininity meant to further the feminist cause, with the action of the comics inspired by both the personalities of Elizabeth and Olive, and by the breakthroughs of Marston’s DISC theory research. Feminism and female autonomy, then, are also central players in the film; Olive’s aunt was the famous radical activist Margaret Sanger. Social expectations are brought under scrutiny, Olive is encouraged to follow her own desires and not the ones dictated to her, and the notion that passionate emotion between women is natural is brought to the fore. As the ambiguous title indicates, the Marstons are an academic team, a powerhouse of co-operation which allows, within the realm of the personal, a certain equality. The women are never presented as fantasy for consumption, and the concept of the male gaze, if not cast out, is definitely offered up for discussion. In essence, the film channels early steps of feminism, which by today’s standards seem un-radical and slow, but were once important catalysts for social interrogation, and for change.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is a thoughtful story, woven with care and working to challenge both cinematic convention and social understandings. It is a celebration of a strong, revolutionary character, and, more importantly, the women who inspired her creation.
Sadhbh Ni Bhroin
16 (See IFCO for details)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is released 10th November 2017