Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is a Lush, Nuanced Love Story

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Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is one of the best movies playing right now. It is a calling card for a new directorial voice in Angela Robinson. She has made a couple of other features but worked mostly in television. But with her latest effort, I can say that she is clearly a director to watch.

William Marston (Luke Evans), the creator of Wonder Woman, and psychologist is happily married to his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). The two are working on a prototype for what will eventually be a lie detector and hire on a student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) as a research assistant. Any other director would more than likely write this as a love triangle or some other melodramatic tripe.

Robinson instead takes a nuanced and sensual look at polyamory. The main thing Robinson understands about polyamory is that they are not all that different from ‘normal’ monogamous relationships. Like anything, it takes communication and understanding what the other wants and needs.

One of the great discoveries of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is Robinson’s gift for dialogue. These are college educated people who sound like college educated people. Modern movies are so shy about having characters that might be smart they end up creating genuinely dumb characters and situations. There is a great dearth of emotional intelligence and dry wit peppered throughout Robinson’s screenplay.

William asks Elizabeth for three minutes of uninterrupted silence from her only to have her interrupting him mere seconds later as he begins to speak for her. “You promised!” He cries. “Well, that was before I realized you were going to be speaking for me.”

William and Elizabeth Marston are a sort of Nick and Nora Charles incarnate. They trade barbs as well as ideas. There is in a deep trust in their relationship as well as an abiding respect for the other’s intellect. The Marstons can take an argument about how William lusts after Olive, in front of her, and have the conversation devolve into Olive’s reaction being the key to fixing their troubled lie detector. Evans and Hall have a rhythm in how they talk to each other, a type of shorthand.

Heathcote’s Olive role is the long-missing ingredient to the happy couple. She amplifies William’s dreamy academia while also tempering Olive’s rueful pragmatism. The magnificent thing is Robinson allows us to see this for ourselves. There’s no hand-holding. We are mercifully spared any scenes where the three hold hands proclaiming their love to some third party as they describe how and why their relationships work. We see it plain as day.

There is one true sex scene. Their first time. It happens on a stage in the university. But Robinson and her cameraman Bryce Fortner don’t frame their lovemaking as lurid and titillating. They frame it less like sex and more like a found connection; a realization of happiness. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has an immense amount of humor and empathy. There’s a brash confidence to Robinson’s visual. It’s not a personal style so much a style catered to the subject.

I’ve never been a particular fan of Luke Evans, but his William is a wry sincere boisterous live wire. Evans has always had a jawline to be a movie star, but here he finally shows he has the talent of one as well. His movements are exaggerated, but he never overplays it. He gives a loud but subtle performance.

It helps that Rebecca Hall is by his side at all times. If there’s anything anchoring William and Olive to reality, it’s her. Arguably the smartest to the three she is also the least able to articulate her feelings. Hall imbues her with a sense of fearlessness and joy.

Good thing Olive is there to force her to face them head-on. Heathcote’s Olive could easily be played as a vacuous pushover. Robinson and Heathcote choose instead have Olive be a woman still trying to find her way in the world. A young woman taken by the handsome young Professor Marston and deeply in awe of the blisteringly intelligent Elizabeth.

Robinson cleverly and effortlessly allows William’s fascination with BDSM to be genuine and honest. Elizabeth has some reluctance until she sees Olive seems to be taken with the idea as well. The BDSM more than anything seems to strengthen their relationship. When the neighbors walk in on the three one day, we are as baffled as they are at the hostility they discover.

The movie is only tangentially concerned with Wonder Woman as an idea. Motifs and visual homages to the Amazon run throughout, but Robinson is more interested in William, Elizabeth, and Olive. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women cuts back and forth in time from the present to the past. In the present William is giving testimony to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) head of the Child Study Association of America, about the ‘subtext’ of his Wonder Woman comics.

These scenes which are fine are somewhat grating because there’s nothing really interesting going on here. Especially since William seems plagued with Chekhov’s cough. This is something we see in movies all the time. Rarely do people cough in act one, have someone ask if they’re okay, and make it out of the movie alive. Still anytime Connie Britton is allowed on screen could hardly be counted as wasted. She’s a wonderful actress who’s able to convey so much of her character just by sitting.  

Angela Robinson has made a quiet truly adult film about complex emotions and relationships. It’s not so much a biopic so much as an attempt to show us there is more than one way to love. Human connection occurs in a myriad of ways in a vast ocean of possibilities. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a sweet, engaging, thoughtful love story that just so happens to be about the guy who invented Wonder Woman and the lie detector.

Critic’s Comment: Though it should be noted, as beautiful as this movie is, Christie Marston, granddaughter of Marston has gone on record to say that Robinson did not talk the Marston family at all for any information on the subjects of this film. This raises the recurring question of many historical biopics as far as accuracy goes. Again, it’s a lush, beautiful film. Just remember that the “facts” presented are Robinson’s interpretation and not necessarily the truth.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

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