1. I love movies about smart people. Typically, when movies try to show someone is intelligent, they do it in a very dumb way. They’ll show a character rattling off a bunch of obscure factoids, or have them retreat to their Genius Lair and return with a deux ex machina solution to all the lingering plot holes. (Think Good Will Hunting, in which our titular hero is apparently smart because his brain is Wikipedia.) But a good movie, a movie that actually is smart, lets our characters shut up and think for a second. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is about a lot of things—about “unconventional” relationships, about society’s rejection of what it finds scary and different, about feminism, about bondage, about following your heart’s individual truth—but what I think it is best at is being about smart people who aren’t any better at figuring out their lives than we are but are still gonna drive themselves nuts trying. I cared about everybody in this film and wanted them to be happy. But I delighted in watching them try to compute what exactly that happiness was.
2. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of two married psychology professors at Radcliffe College, Bill Marston (Luke Evans) and Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), a couple who grew up together and are deeply in love but also restless and eager for discovery. While attempting to invent a lie detector test—they eventually create one but never patent it—they meet an eager, beautiful student named Olive (Bella Heathcote) who’s the daughter of a feminist icon and as desperate for knowledge and new experiences as they are. They eventually all fall in love and live together as a menage a trois before their university finds out, fires the couple and forces them to all go live together, now with their children, to find some sort of work. The work turns out, we learn in an unnecessary narrative flash-forward sequence, to serve as the basis of Bill’s increasing interest in comic books, creating a character, based on the two women in his life and based in his feminist ideals, who is strong, smart, truthful, heroic and, well, into bondage. The love story of this family turns out to be the origin story of Wonder Woman herself.
3. This is a fascinating story, particularly as we see little moments in the lives of the Marston clan reflected in the Wonder Woman mythos. (Olive wears metal wristbands all the time, the lasso is like the lie detectors Elizabeth and Bill invent, so on.) But writer-director Angela Robinson makes sure to keep it focused on the emotions involved, which is especially tricky considering all three characters are all so academically oriented—not to mention obsessed with deciphering the human mind and why we make the decisions we do—and are thus constantly questioning their own value systems. We really do believe that these three people love each other, and that they’re all better off together, but Robinson never tries to make this overly prudish and sanitized. The movie isn’t buttoned-up and restrained, but it isn’t brash and in your face either; it’s affably sexy, if such a thing is possible. And it never loses sight of its central premise of equality and acceptance, even if it gets a little too speechy and preachy about it. This movie’s heart is firmly in the right place.
4. It also helps to have nailed the three lead roles. Rebecca Hall is the standout, but that’s not surprising; she’s been playing intelligent, complicated women for years, and she’s particularly grounded here as a woman who is constantly trying to rationalize and even sanitize her own desires. But the other two leads match her at every turn. Heathcote is obviously lovely, but there’s a steely reserve to her, a confidence in her own decisions that turns out to be a little stronger than the two older people she’s involved with. But it’s Evans who’s the biggest shock. Evans is an actor I’ve never much catered to—he has always seemed like the twitchiest beefcake—but he finds a new reservoir of warmth and empathy here. He’s a tough part: He has to be sexually adventurous without being predatory, a man committed to feminist ideals without stomping on them in his personal life. He’s a delicate, extremely likable performance that anchors the whole film. The movie is more about the women than it is him, but Professor Marston follows his cue: You’ll root like crazy for all three of them.
5. Robinson at this point might have a little bit more empathy in reserve than visionary filmmaking skill: The movie is warm-hearted but a little staid at times, conventional in ways that don’t always benefit the narrative. (The flash-forward framing device, featuring Connie Britton as a Focus-on-the-Family type who is scandalized by the Wonder Woman comics, is clunky and mostly just gets in the way.) Robinson is so eager to please that she’s a little too on-the-nose sometimes; she’s definitely not subtle. But that’s okay, too, because she allows us to spend time with these people, and smart, flawed, lovable people, as they try to peel apart the layers of their lives and then reconstruct themselves. It’s sometimes a bumpy road getting to the crowd-pleasing ending, but you’ll love the journey. And it will be pleasing.
Director: Angela Robinson
Writer: Angela Robinson
Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt
Release Date: October 13, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.