Editor Chloe Woods examines Angela Robinson’s biographical drama.
Sometimes history defies the limits of creative imagination: and this is the case with the creator of Diana Prince, Wonder Woman, first introduced to the world in (1941) by William Marston. What author would invent a disgraced psychologist living in a clandestine polyamorous relationship in 1930s American suburbia to write and publish the world’s first truly successful female superhero – as a vehicle of propaganda for the cheerful submission of boys and men to women’s superiority? But such is the history recounted in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.
Or at least, that’s either the story director and writer Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S., The L Word) believes she’s telling, or the one she knows she’s not telling. It’s hard to be certain. Though few people have ever accused the makers of historical films of being overly beholden to actual, lived reality, it’s considered decent of them to stick with the generally-accepted version of events, even when it concerns a history not many people know about. Here, the generally-accepted version is that the story is about William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), the progenitor of Diana and of DISC theory, a psychological theory later developed into a behavioural assessment tool, and his relationship with two women. It’s true that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women follows said Professor Marston for much of the film; true that he is central to the framing device so might be attributed with guiding the narrative; true that on paper the film revolves around the triadic, polyamorous relationship of Elizabeth-William-Olive most accounts report, Professor Marston and his wonder women; true that the story being told is the story advertised, the history-as-understood.
Except that, looked at from another angle, the film is not about Professor Marston or his life or the creation of Diana at all. Those things are included, and they’re more than subplots, but they’re less than plot. At this film’s beating heart drives nothing more nor less than a love story between two people, not three, and neither of them is William Marston. It was – to put it bluntly – a surprise, and one I’m still struggling to piece together. Perhaps Robinson didn’t think a heterosexual relationship needed to be sold as hard. Perhaps she thought it didn’t deserve to. Perhaps she simply wanted to focus on two women falling in love (I should mention, perhaps, that Robinson is herself a lesbian). Perhaps she thought it was true. Whatever the reason, ultimately, the upshot is that the most important story in Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman is the story of Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) and their complex, resisted, baffling love across the years.
Film studies 101: how do we show love on screen? Traditionally, compared to love in the real world, it contains rather more in the way of lingering glances and longing looks, and rather less driving over at 3am because the cat is stuck under the cooker again. We could argue about the merits of romance’s presentation in film until the chickens come home to roost, but for now, let’s play by the rules. By staging, Olive and Elizabeth are often isolated – together – while William is peripheral; he is rarely alone with either past the opening minutes of the film. Whether he is present or absent, both camera and score are more interested in the points of contact the women share, both physically and in their eyes across empty rooms and speakeasy tables. It is Olive’s advance towards Elizabeth that sets the triad into motion, and Elizabeth’s wariness of her feelings towards another woman – shame as much as logical awareness of societal censure – that provide its greatest stumbling block. They orbit around each other while William, much of the time, simply watches: the film is a study in who is watching who and it seems not coincidental that during their most pivotal moments he is cast into the role of voyeur. This is true not only of the almost gratuitously lavish relationship-forging kiss but, frankly, of the sex scene that follows. Though husband to one and lover to the other, William Marston for the large part is constructed as much as as live-in companion, and might even be read as facilitator of Olive and Elizabeth’s relationship. Certainly, his final important act (knowing he has – spoilers – not many years left to live) is to encourage their reconciliation; in real life, as the closing credits note, Elizabeth and Olive remained together long after William’s death.
The story in which William Marston is the central lynchpin of a poly relationship with two bisexual women who inspired the warrior Diana (also – though very latterly – bisexual) may be the story we are being told, but it is not the story we are being shown. Hell: the word “bisexual” is never used, and though the old historical-accuracy bell may be rung for that (may: the term is older, but it does appear to have only been popularised by Kinsey later than the film is set), that doesn’t account for the inclusion of “lesbian” or a namecheck of Sappho. And if I appear to have spent a disproportionate quantity of the review on this, it’s because I’m still not sure what to think. Angela Robinson either has no idea what she’s doing, or she’s a genius. And this film is not, otherwise, the work of someone with no idea what they’re doing: it’s solidly-structured, the dialogue is well-written, the characters are vivid and complex; and if the sound and camerawork aren’t going to set off any new stylistic trends, they’re a fair cut above competent. It’s hard to believe Robinson wasn’t fully aware, making this film, she’d effectively underwritten an official history of polyamorous bisexuality with a lesbian love story. I suppose the important question is whether or not she’s right. Debates continue to this day about the true sequence of events in the Marston household, including over how much of the loving, balanced relationship depicted between the three existed in reality.
Well. Whatever story is being told, the actors sell it. Hall stands out as the proud Elizabeth, equally gifted and cursed as a woman in the early 20th century with driven intelligence; Elizabeth is the most cautious of the three towards their relationship, and Hall balances the fine line between pragmatic and ashamed perfectly. Heathcote is also strong, presenting Olive as the ingenue who perhaps could have been afforded greater opportunity to show off her own intellectual strength. Evans too acts well, though he’s a little less portly than Marston in reality, and I must admit the ages of their children are baffling. (They look school-aged when the chronology suggests they should be toddlers.) I’d also recommend taking the psychology with a teaspoon of salt. Though they have debates, the film doesn’t seek to undermine known wrong beliefs the characters share – for example, about the effectiveness of polygraphs. The psychological bent of the film, and the focus on Marston’s DISC theory, might render some scenes uncomfortable to viewers who don’t agree with the paradigm.
It’s certainly an addition to this year’s impressive slate of LGBT films, if a somewhat awkward one considering – shall we say – all of the above: the question remains where to place it. I’m still uncertain. Then again, I’ve been told not everyone watches films to interrogate their presentation of gender dynamics or sexuality, so to conclude (TL;DR) I should simply say Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a highly enjoyable watch if you’re in the mood for reasonably light historical drama (with occasional naked people). And while not everyone might agree with me that it’s a fine film, there can be no doubt it’s a fascinating one.
Professor Marston & the Wonder Women premiered at London Film Festival on the 10th of October.