Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.
There are basically two reasons to make a biopic – either because the subject’s life was interesting as a whole, or because the subject did something interesting at one point in their life without necessarily having that thing fit into a conventional narrative. (It’s the difference between John Carpenter’s Elvis film and something like Elvis & Nixon.) The nuance is that the second kind of biopic generally focuses on a more limited period of time and doesn’t necessarily dwell on psychology over a lifetime; these movies do not seek to tie in a traumatic childhood event to something that happened decades later, for example.
Angela Robinson’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is unusual in that respect because it puts the thing that William Marston is best known for (creating the Wonder Woman character) in the background of his life’s story, yet it applies the corny tricks of the musty biopic format to the part of the subject’s life that doesn’t need it.
The film focuses instead on Marston’s personal life and more particularly on the polyamorous relationship he shared with his wife and research partner Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, excellent as always) and a much-younger student named Olive (Bella Heathcote). Though this relationship was integral to the creation of Wonder Woman – the early iteration of the character was basically designed as a conduit for the ideas Marston explored in his research, which was in itself an extension of the things he observed in his unconventional romantic relationship – it doesn’t have much of a hold on popular culture.
These days, few people equate Wonder Woman with early taboo-shattering takes on BDSM and various kinks, and the tracing of lines between themes doesn’t lend itself to the facile shortcuts of the traditional biopic. The fact that Robinson leans heavily on those tropes robs Professor Marston… of much of its power.
Robinson rather clumsily frames the story around that most annoying of storytelling clichés: the movie-long, ever-reaching biographical interview. Marston may not be wistfully recounting his life to a biographer while puffing on a pipe – he’s actually being grilled by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a sort of children’s-rights censor/watchdog who has objections to the tenor of Wonder Woman – but he still spends most of the movie laboriously laying out all of the plot points. I can’t think of too many movies that have used this kind of storytelling structure successfully; it’s a hell of a crutch, I suppose, but it makes even a film with a subject as left-field as Professor Marston and the Wonder Women feel like a mid-’90s HBO feature.
It’s doubly awkward considering that there’s definitely a polished, clean-scrubbed aesthetic to the visuals of the film, from the adoringly antiseptic old-Hollywood production design to the peachy-keen sexiness of its leads. (Though the film takes place over the span of nearly three decades, it makes the perplexing decision of never ageing the actors. That means that Heathcote ends the movie as a 45-year-old mother of teenagers who looks exactly the same as when she was the buxom college freshman that caught the Marstons’ eye.)
Robinson’s film has a very blandly attractive aesthetic that feels more like a glamorous ’40s vehicle than anything remotely progressive or current – something only exacerbated by the casting of a guy from the Fast and Furious movies as a tweedy academic perpetually clad in an oversized cardigan.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably of the opinion that I thought that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was hokey garbage; it certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it? The film’s ace in the sleeve, however, might actually be this plethora of flaws. All of Robinson’s classicist, corny directorial choices happen in a movie that very plainly, very matter-of-factly makes a non-judgmental case for polygamy as a viable life option. Even in progressive, would-be “woke” 2017, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream film with bright-eyed, bushy-tailed movie stars that wouldn’t at least make the movie about how you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The film’s treatment of its central relationship is by far the most interesting aspect of the narrative – even if their one sex scene is shot like a Yaris ad.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women needs its corny structure in order to work. The entire film is predicated on the idea that it functions as a glammed-up modern version of pie-eyed biopics from the ’40s and ’50s. I’m not certain the gamble necessarily works or that this idea is a particularly rich or viable one, partially because the clichés and structural shortcuts are already so overplayed at this point that they can’t be subverted. In fact, I don’t think Professor Marston and the Wonder Women actually subverts anything – but it’s undeniably fascinating in its artificial, plastic exploration of sensuality and love. It uses the most tired and simplistic techniques to explore something complicated – and even if that’s intentional, the simplistic movie that ultimately emerges feels like a wasted opportunity. ■
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is in theatres October 13. Watch the trailer here: