Professor Marston and the Wonder Women a groundbreaking portrait of love, marriage
The groundbreaking film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women offers one of very few positive representations of polyamory in the history of cinema.
This should not go overlooked: The public view of non-monogamous relationships is one plagued by misunderstandings and sensationalism, some erroneously equating polygamy with polyamory, others assuming that non-monogamy must only be practised by sex deviants or mentally ill people, thus forcing many non-monogamists to keep their consensual, harmless relationships a secret.
While non-normative types of sexuality and gender identity have become more socially acceptable in the last few decades, the stigma against open relationship styles persist. But Professor Marston, based on the real-life story of the Harvard psychologist William Marston who created Wonder Woman, helps shed this negative image.
The film presents the radical idea that three people can actually love each other. Luke Evans plays the titular “Bill” Marston, mesmerized by his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, in one of the year’s finest performances). The happy couple both
come to fall for Marston’s sweet, innocent student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
It sounds like a fairy tale given the time period — the late 1920s, when lesbianism was considered a mental illness — but the film smartly deliberates on the slow evolution of their love, how Marston and Olive’s attractions to each other becomes eclipsed by Olive’s attraction for Elizabeth, and the latter’s eventual admission of feelings for Olive.
Being masters of psychology, William, Olive and Elizabeth understand that communication of feelings is paramount to navigating their unusual love arrangement. The Marstons’ invention of the polygraph plays a central role in illuminating the characters’ feelings for each other; it uses science that more skeptical viewers can empirically appreciate to finally accept the notion that yes, three people can all love each other.
Professor Marston works best when it’s a romance story, one that honestly depicts the threesome’s hardships in making the brave decision to live together, despite the stigma and cruel, financially crushing rejection from employers, friends and neighbours. It also lovingly portrays the fun, hilarious hijinks of such a relationship.
But that’s only half of the film’s story. The unemployed Marston decides to teach his radical DISC theory — now a ubiquitous personality-type test employed in workplaces — through comic books. He bases his character Wonder Woman on the two loves of his life — the smart, nononsense Elizabeth and the kind, generous Olive — but the sexual imagery of his comic creations nabs the attention of child safety organizations who deem his work too smutty for kids.
It’s an understatement to say that Marston — and the ideas and practices of his Wonder Women — were ahead of their time. The film has no qualms using the standard biopic convention wherein present-day viewers can smugly look back at history and think how backward people were in the 1930s (Elizabeth’s description of Bill’s comics as “pornography” will make some eyes roll). The film is a smorgasbord of standard biopic clichés, but maybe, in the case of Professor Marston, it’s not the worst thing.
Given the scant positive depictions of poly relationships in cinema, a film that manages to compellingly tell a humanist story of three people in love might pave the path for more positive representations of alternative love, ones that are also more esthetically interesting and varied.
In the meantime, Professor Marston is a sharp and satisfying mix of film genres — biopic, character study and the sorely missed rom-com — that advance sex positivity in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema.
Bella Heathcote, left, and Rebecca Hall star in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a sharp and satisfying mix of film genres.
Oliver Platt stars as comic book publisher M.C. Gaines in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a film that explores the pleasures and pains of a polyamorous relationship.