Pro­fes­sor Marston and the Won­der Women a ground­break­ing por­trait of love, mar­riage

Edmonton Journal - - MOVIES - TINA HASSANNIA

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.

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