Perhaps the most unexpected addition to Fantastic Fest this year was the prestige biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, directed by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S), which makes sense for genre fans if you’re solely looking at the subject matter (the real-world origins of the Wonder Woman comic book) but doesn’t tonally. It’s a restrained and often gorgeously acted throwback, occasionally evocative of a Hawksian screwball comedy even as it draws into the territory of the familiar. Yet it’s got a cutting-edge sexuality to it, exploring the kind of plural relationship that Hollywood often refuses to, and it feels positively fresh no matter amount of genre tropes. Yes, the Hot Wonder Woman Creator Who Fucks movie is solid, and you should see it at your earliest convenience.
At the start of the 1930s, Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is teaching his pet psychological theories to undergrads at Harvard, and via that university, Radcliffe, as Harvard won’t admit women to its Phd. programs just yet. His wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), knows that better than anyone else: she’s the true brains behind their pairing, and yet she’ll never be acknowledged for her work. The two teach as a pair, essentially, and their lives are comfortable and loving, for the most part- they’ve been together for as long as they can remember, and support each other as only the best of partners can, but there’s something slightly lacking in their relationship.
Yet, one day, a girl named Olive (Bella Heathcote) joins Marston’s class, and volunteers for after-hours work with the couple, and he begins to fall head-over-heels for her. After some early struggles, the three begin an excellent working relationship, developing what would become known as the polygraph, all the while developing burgeoning feelings for one another, despite the objections of Olive’s fiancee and Elizabeth’s fears about what society would do to them. Of course, they wind up together, and they begin to explore facets of their personalities and sexual personae that they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise, from BDSM onwards, and along the way, Marston begins to get ideas about inventing a comic book superheroine to share his ideas along with the world.
The triumvirate at the film’s core are uniformly well-cast, though it’s not without some Hollywood revisionism (let’s be frank, it’d probably be Tom Wilkinson playing Marston as he’s shown in the credits, not the trim and fit Evans as the film would have you believe), but it’s Hall who is the standout here. She’s brilliantly magnetic and sardonic, with a dry wit and the intelligence to perpetually match it, and her cycle of shame about the relationship between the three of them serves to give the film a decent structure, and her character’s arc sustains the runtime. She has a great chemistry with Evans, and their scenes together at the start of the film, in which they bicker and joke together inside of their Harvard lab could easily be plucked from a ’30s-set Hawks film.
Her portrayal of Elizabeth Marston owes as much to Hepburn and Harlow as it does the actual person she’s seeing to portray here, and Evans, wisely, plays it straight, as he goes for the kind of Cary Grant stability that works so well in this time period. Heathcote’s mild-mannered temperament fits in excellently as contrast, given the outsized nature of her partners’ personalities, and she’s got a quiet power to her work here that makes her feel grounded and natural. Other figures make enough of an impression — Connie Britton as an anti-feminist comic-book censor, Oliver Platt as a publisher — but it’s really a showcase for its leads alone. It’s a blissful screwball comedy that’s a bit derailed by the nature of the biopic beast, especially burdened with the added weight of the fact that this is the true-to-life origin story of one of the most popular superheroes on the planet.
In a number of ways, Professor Marston works best when it’s not concerned with the iconography of the star-spangled Amazon; hampered here, perhaps, by the rightsholders’ objections (a scene in which Heathcote dresses in fetish gear and we get hints at the Wonder Woman costume in it falls a bit flat at first). Outside of the framing device used to throw the whole film in motion, her creation could easily take a backseat to other creations they made: For instance, the polygraph, which the Marstons also invented at Harvard and Robinson has an excellent cinematic usage for when the characters are all beginning to fall in love with each other. Yet that might actually be a sign of the film’s success: I gave a shit about the characters outside of the context of what they had done with their lives, which is something that biopics traditionally fail at, as oftentimes they’re mainly greatest-hits takes on the lives of the notable. I wanted their romance to succeed, and for them to live happily in defiance of the system, and the Wonder Woman moments were, honestly, an intrusion upon that love story.
Plenty of criticism has already been hurled at Robinson and her cohorts for making this traditionally, with the standards and tropes of your average romantic biopic, but the director insists (and I agree) that it’s part of the point: That telling this story in the most conventional of ways establishes it as a love as relatable as any other. And on that level, Professor Marston succeeds wildly, with its deeply affable characters and loving story rhythms, even if it’s central conceit (and greatest reason for existing) doesn’t totally gel together. Even with all of that, it may very well be the best Wonder Woman-related film of the year.
Featured image via screen grab. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus for updates straight from Austin, and recap all our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage here.