The first reviews are in for "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," the first seriously poly big-theater movie
A month before its official opening, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The early reviews sound like it's very good.
● Indiewire: The Year’s Kinkiest Biopic Packs an Unexpected Emotional Punch (Sept. 9, 2017)
As subversive as her subject matter is, Angela Robinson couches her film in familiar trappings that help present a respectful take on a wild story.
Left to right: Bella Heathcote stars as Olive Byrne, Luke Evans as Dr. William Marston and Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Marston. (Claire Folger / Annapurna Pictures)
By Kate Erbland
The year’s other big “Wonder Woman” movie includes plenty that would never make the cut in not just a studio-issued superhero blockbuster, but the vast majority of paint-by-number biopics, including: two long-form sequences involving a threesome, a secret venture to a clandestine sex toy-selling lingerie shop, a lie detector machine used as a form of foreplay, ropes, ropes, and more ropes, and a unshakable belief in the true power and reach of feminism. Angela Robinson’s fact-based film follows the eyebrow-raising personal life of Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and the two great loves of his life, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their shared partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), and how its unconventional bent led to the creation of Wonder Woman.
...When he decides to cook up a comic book, Elizabeth and Olive are as surprised as the audience, and when he shows up at comic book visionary Max Gaines’ office to rattle of both his ideas and his accomplishments (he’s a Harvard psychologist! he invented the lie detector machine! he wants to make a feminist superhero to inspire young girls!), it’s appropriately striking and more than a little bit weird. Such was William’s life — and his life with Elizabeth and Olive, which forms the emotional and narrative center of the feature.
Kicking off in 1945, as William’s now-famous comic book is coming under major fire for its more questionable themes,.. “Professor Marston” opens with William defending his creation to a snappy Connie Britton, playing a crusader for homespun values who has taken major offense at what the doctor is selling kiddos. As William explains what Wonder Woman is really about to Britton and her lackeys, the film slips back in 1928, when so much of it began.
William and his whipsmart wife Elizabeth (a wonderfully restrained Hall) approach most things with a rigorous brand of academic-leaning chatter — it’s both foreplay and genuine curiosity that pushes them to ask each other (and others) about their innermost desires. When the observant Olive arrives at Radcliffe, an eager student who signs up to assist the Marstons (while Harvard refuses to grant her a doctorate, Elizabeth still works alongside her husband), it upends even their most carefully conceived plans. For one, she’s pretty (and she’s sick of it being her most defining characteristic). For another, she’s searching for something bigger than just that.
...Elizabeth’s first suspicions, that Olive and William are about to embark on a passionate affair, prove incorrect. Turns out, it’s the three of them that are about to fall in love. Robinson’s film hinges on not just her respectful treatment of the material — as kinky as “Professor Marston” is, and as wild as its three sexiest sequences get, the film is never salacious — but on performances from a cast just as dedicated to selling the material.
Evans, Hall, and Heathcote exhibit major chemistry (in every permutation) possible, but they also don’t wink at the storyline, playing a provocative story totally straight. And, at its heart, “Professor Marston” is a love story, just one that happens to involve three people.
While the film eventually settles into a predictable rhythm that doles out some predictable life lessons (“Professor Marston,” like so many other biopics before it, is driven by the idea that living an authentic life is the best option for the world’s luminaries), it’s hard to ignore the power of a story that can package unorthodox concepts in such readymade trappings. That might be the most clever concept of all — turning the unusual and despised into the kind of super-story that could inspire the world’s best hero into being. ...
● Mashable: The year of Wonder Woman continues with the excellent 'Professor Marston' (Sept. 9)
By Angie Han
Can Wonder Woman's year get any better? Turns out, yes.
...Like Wonder Woman before it, Professor Marston feels both comfortingly familiar and quietly groundbreaking.
Dr. William Moulton Marston is typically credited as the creator of Wonder Woman. But like last year's Hidden Figures, Professor Marston gives the lie to the assumption that creative brilliance is the sole province of tortured and solitary assholes. Wonder Woman, in this telling, is borne of the romance and collaboration between three people: Bill Marston, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne.
...For much of its running time, Professor Marston is a love story, and a sweet, sexy one at that. Just as Bill and Elizabeth looked for physiological "tells" that would let their machine unlock the truth in a person's heart, writer-director Angela Robinson lets this romance develop through minute physical gestures – a soft sigh, a bite of the lip, a glance held too long. When these desires are finally consummated, it feels Earth-shattering at first, and then joyous.
Although Wonder Woman isn't created until the second half of the movie, her shadow looms large throughout. ...
Professor Marston falls victim to the usual biopic pitfalls at times, getting a little too cute or heavy-handed with the foreshadowing. ... Still, [it] succeeds where so many biopics fail — in showing us its subjects as more than just the sum of their accomplishments, and getting to the heart of the maddening but all-too-human contradictions that drive them forward.
This is truest of all of Elizabeth, who's outwardly brash and opinionated, but inwardly terrified. It's not that her give-no-fucks attitude is a front. It's that Bill is a man and Olive is a beautiful young woman, while Elizabeth's always been a bit of an outsider. More than either of her lovers, she knows all too well the struggle of trying to live outside of the usual societal boundaries.
Hall's performance as Elizabeth is nothing short of remarkable — you can see Elizabeth's conflicting emotions, and her continual efforts to tamp them down, playing out across her face with just a tremble of a lip. All three lead performances are marvelous, but Hall's is the one that stayed with me all the way home.
If Professor Marston feels a little bit conventional at times, that, in itself, is kind of incredible. When's the last time you saw a historical drama that involved a kinky polyamorous relationship at all, let alone one framed as happy, healthy, and loving? Or one that allowed a man to be as tender and emotional as Bill is here, or a woman as complicated as Elizabeth is?
● The Guardian finds the movie too bland and earnest: Vanilla-flavoured origin story (Sept. 9)
By Peter Bradshaw
As well as showcasing the blandest and most tasteful three-way sex scene in history, this movie spreads an odd pall of sentimentality and period-glow nostalgia over a fascinating real-life story. ...
The movie is written and directed by Angela Robinson, for whom it is evidently a passion project. Yet the passion never quite surfaces in the performances nor the action. It is as if the movie isn’t quite sure how to acknowledge the obvious role of male porn in Wonder Woman’s creation and popularity, nor exactly how to match this by celebrating Wonder Woman’s feminist credentials. Nor does it acknowledge the fact that this superhero was, after all, aimed at kids. This creates a tone of forced sweetness and celebratory earnestness, where something more savoury would have been better. As for the relationship between William, Elizabeth and Olive, it may have been polyamorous, or it may have been a bit of unofficial alpha-male polygamy.
Luke Evans plays Marston, who is preeningly vain in his three-piece suit, lecturing on psychology in the 1920s to a class full of simperingly submissive co-eds. His wife Elizabeth ... is intellectually brilliant but constricted by the sexist conventions of academe; she has to look on, wryly aware that her husband could misbehave himself with any of these acolytes if he wished. It comes to pass with a smart and beautiful student, Olive (Bella Heathcote), who is, in fact, a little more in love with Elizabeth than William. They wind up having an embarrassing PG-rated three-way on the stage of a student theatre that is staging Greek drama, of all Freudian things. The subsequent professional disgrace and firing gives William time to work (with Elizabeth and Olive as his Wonder Women, his muses-slash-collaborators-slash-domestic partners) on that delirious comic-book creation, born of passion, fire, costumes, role-play, Hellenic mythology and kinkiness.
Periodically, the movie shows frames from the comic, and these absolutely pop: they are fierce, smart, funny and weird. But then we are back to the ponderous drama, which always insists on a deeply felt solemnity. The action is structured around flashbacks from evidence that Marston is giving to a glowering official committee, which is deeply disapproving of Wonder Woman and her effect on the nation’s youth. There is even a scene showing kids burning Wonder Woman comics the way a later generation would burn Beatles’ records. Marston looks on, grievingly sad at being misinterpreted and suppressed. But there appears nothing at stake: this McCarthy-ite tribunal doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion, and there is no great reckoning.
This is not to say the film shies away from the sexiness and gaminess in Marston’s past. There is a scene in which William and Elizabeth spy on a sorority pledge initiation ritual involving Olive. It includes spanking. Hugely turned on, William begins to caress Elizabeth in the shadows and has to stop only because they might be discovered. Following scenes show them earnestly discussing how and why they found it arousing. But there is no question of them trying spanking themselves. In their quaintly conceived group-sex-hugs, the only flavour is vanilla. Weirdly, that is the flavour of the film itself.
Rating: Two stars
● Hollywood Reporter: Empowering and fun, too. (Sept. 9, 2017)
By Deborah Young
...This well-crafted indie, beautifully cast with Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as the loving trio of forward-thinking intellectuals, should stand a fighting chance of going beyond niche and LGBTQ audiences to a bigger marketplace. It is being released this fall by Annapurna Pictures in the U.S. and internationally by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, following its Toronto bow.
Prof. Marston teaches psychology at Radcliffe, where he propounds his DISC theory, that all human behavior can be traced to a form of dominance, inducement, submission or compliance. Played by the magnetic Evans (Beauty and the Beast) as a younger and sexier version of the good professor, he projects enthusiasm in front of an all-female class that has an element of seduction in it. This doesn’t escape his arch wife Elizabeth (British actress Hall, who starred as the TV reporter in Christine.) Witty and sharp-tongued, she reminds him she’s the more brilliant member of the couple (he doesn’t disagree) and that Harvard's sexist politics have crippled her own career in psychology.
...The sophisticated Elizabeth pretends she is untouched by sexual jealousy. “I’m your wife, not your jailer,” she tosses off. Alone with Olive, however, she sternly warns the girl she had better not go to bed with her husband in startlingly modern, uncensored language and a typical confrontational style that Hall pulls off extremely well.
Belying her look of waifish innocence and purity, Olive turns out to be an even more daring rebel than the Marstons. She comes from a line of notable feminists: her aunt is birth control activist Margaret Sanger and her mother fought for women’s suffrage, ironically abandoning Olive in a convent school to devote her life to the movement. She is ripe for recruitment as a teaching assistant and guinea pig for the Marstons’ research on human psychology. ...
...Olive and Elizabeth are fascinating freethinkers in a day when sex was all but taboo, and it is obvious that they were the models for Bill's super-heroine. Intercut with the story about how the threesome moves to the suburbs to raise their extended family are Bill’s adventures writing the Wonder Woman stories and their first publication in December of 1941. According to the film, the comic strip was outselling Superman at one point. ...
This may have been partly due to his generous use of sexual images that depicted the iconic Amazon binding and spanking women, which soon got him and his publisher into hot water with the censors.
...Robinson covers a lot of material here, rarely stopping to pause and enjoy the weather. There’s little poetry in the growing feelings between Elizabeth and Olive and Bill, and less passion in the hurried seduction scenes which can seem perfunctory. Many rough edges are smoothed by the strong acting and well-done tech work. ...
● NOW Toronto: The story of Wonder Woman’s creation is, perhaps, stranger and weirder than the character’s own origin. (Sept. 9)
...Robinson tells their story straight, without a hint of the winking foreshadowing that defines most modern biopics. That means Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote get to play complex, credible human beings struck by unexpected attraction, rather than cartoonish horndogs.
It’s a risky move, and it pays off in a genuinely moving story with great performances from all three leads, but especially Hall. ...
● Screen Daily: A very different kind of comic book origin story (Sept. 9)
...Robinson chronicles a complex love story ... resulting in a drama that’s far more intellectually intriguing than emotionally engaging. Guided by Rebecca Hall’s fine performance as William’s sharp, brittle wife, Professor Marston is a film about sexual freedom than ends up feeling a little too conventional.
...The filmmaker quickly establishes the three principal characters’ different personalities. Where Elizabeth is caustic and witty, William is more gregarious, and Olive is impressionable, sweet and a little intimidated by their brains and self-confidence.
...Professor Marston proves less compelling once the characters dive into their relationship. Societal scorn and the challenges of making a polyamorous relationship work — especially when the possibility of jealousy always exists — are dramatically rich obstacles, and the film helps normalise a romantic arrangement that, even now, is viewed as odd, even perverse. Unfortunately, Professor Marston slowly and inextricably drifts into biopic clichés, pummelling the viewer with bland montages, an uninspired flashback-laden structure and other on-the-nose narrative devices.
Nonetheless, Hall is superb as a woman held back by a sexist society who has used her intellect to shield herself from disappointment. Once Olive enters the picture, Elizabeth has a much harder time hiding her feelings, and the character’s journey to be more honest about her emotions is quietly affecting. Evans is broader as William, whose determination to make his name in the world isn’t expertly drawn. As for Heathcote, she’s suitably bewitching, but Professor Marston ends up reducing her to a third wheel in this relationship, mostly empowering the other characters’ agenda.
● From one of our own, at The Mary Sue: A Breathless Depiction of How An Icon Was Born of Deep Love (Sept. 9)
By Teresa Jusino
...And so, in 1930s-40s America, these three people attempt to navigate a hugely unconventional relationship. ... While it’s clear that Olive loves Bill (she wouldn’t have so much sex with him, live with him, or bear his children if she didn’t), the focus of the film is the love between the women....,Wonder Woman became [Marston's] his not-very-subtle homage to the women he loved, their life together, and the feminist, progressive ideals they shared. Bill wanted to spread those ideals to the youth and change the world. Oh yeah, and early Wonder Woman contained a bunch of bondage imagery, because DISC theory.
...What makes the film extraordinary, though, is not only the representation it provides ... but the respect with which Robinson treats these people and the way in which they chose to live their lives.
What’s truly groundbreaking about this film isn’t the sex scenes, but how normal and almost boring the Marstons’ lives are. ... When they have sex, it’s sweet and loving. It’s passionate (no really, there are some really hot scenes up in here), but grounded. It’s real. The rest of the time, they’re dealing with the kids, arguing, laughing over meals, paying bills together — the way it would happen in any family. ...What this film seems to assert is, These people are just like you.
...The three of them together are magic, and the chemistry between them is off-the-charts.
I’m grateful this movie exists. After the screening I attended, I told anyone who would listen that this film is representative of all the facets of my inner life in a way that very few films have ever been. ... It’s rare that LGBTQIA+ people, people in non-monogamous relationships, and women get treated with this much care in film. The fact that it also included some awesome comic book history was icing on the cake.
From now on, when I meet someone new, I’m gonna be like, “Go watch Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and then you’ll understand me.”
● More reviews.
● Also: Angela Robinson (who is black and bi) explains herself to the leading gay magazine The Advocate: Revealing the 'Throuple' Behind Wonder Woman (Sept. 7)
By Diane Anderson-Minshall and Tracy E. Gilchrist
...If the subject matter and star [Luke Evans] weren’t enough of an LGBT draw, the film is helmed by a queer cavalcade: Transparent creator Jill Soloway, veteran producer Andrea Sperling (But I’m a Cheerleader), Clare Munn (who made headlines for her relationship with actress Maria Bello), and famed lesbian director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.,The L Word), who we pinned down for a few questions.
...Tell me about capturing the emotional depth of Professor Marston.
To me, this is a love story. Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive were psychologists and academics who were obsessed with studying human emotion. It was important to me to capture all of the micro-beats of their romance and intimacy. They are all tied together, both literally and figuratively — hyper aware of each other, reacting to every look and touch and tonality of voice. I think that’s how it feels when you’re falling in love and I wanted to capture the density of those emotions.
What surprised you about doing this film?
Honestly, I began this whole journey many years ago thinking Marston was kind of a crack-pot. Writing the film for me was a way for me to wrestle with Marston’s contradictory and, at times, I felt, deeply problematic theories on women and feminism and bondage and human nature. But now I think Marston was onto something very true and profound. He and Elizabeth and Olive were trying to save the world with their ideas. And he created a superhero that was about love instead of war, a warrior for peace and freedom — not just the patriotic notion of freedom, but freedom to be yourself.
● All my posts about the movie (including this one; scroll down).
● Once again: We in the poly movement need to plan our public responses for when this movie hits theaters on October 13th.