Far too often when a “based on a true story” film pops up, it feels as if the main purpose for its being is to win awards. A cynical view, sure, yet one easily based on fact. A handful of those films are better than they have any right to be, but that;s usually due to the team behind the camera injecting urgency or timeliness into the proceedings. Those reasons, as well as a trio of fantastic performances, are what sets Professor Marston and the Wonder Women apart from the also-rans.
That’s not to say the first opening moments give the feeling of the kind of film it will eventual give way to. The framing device is set in 1945 as William Marston (Luke Evans) is being question about the content of the Wonder Woman comic, to decide if the character should be taken from him. It’s a decision that’s never fully fleshed out, serving more so as a counterpoint to the happy live Marston usually is living. Instead, in 1928, where the focus of the film truly lies, things are much much livelier.
Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (a radiant Rebecca Hall), work at Radcliffe College, the all women arm of Harvard University. William teaches a class on psychology, wanting to explore his views on DISC theory, which covers 4 behavior types: Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. Each subject gets explored over the course of the film, as a relationship between William, Elizabeth and one of their students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) starts to develop.
While Professor Marston does dip its toes into the basic minutia of “true” films, covering the couple’s involvement in the first lie detector test, H.G Peters co-creating Wonder Woman (it’s a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” cameo), that isn’t the focus. More so, the team behind the film are interested in people. A refreshing move in a field of movies that go for maudlin instead of introspection.
It’s a testament to the team behind the film that Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote and Luke Evans each get to shine. There’s an intelligence to their characters that never seems pretentious or overly smarmy. This allows a natural flow to formulate, one where the audience sits back and can focus on the action taking place. The majority of that focus is likely to be put upon Hall as she absolutely dazzles on the screen. In a year where people have called for strong female representation, here’s on to raise up high, even as she’s out of time. If Rebecca Hall isn’t nominated for all the top awards at the end of the year (or is unfortunately somehow even relegated to “supporting” status), then that just highlights what most are seeing as a big problem.
The true “secret weapon” of Professor Marston is writer/director Angela Robinson. Though she toiled away helming both D.E.B.S. and Herbie Fully Loaded, she also directed and wrote a handful of episodes of the celebrated TV drama The L Word. It’s easy to posit that working on a show, such as that, helped the way the main trio are portrayed. The characters of this film are not only intelligent people who speak their mind, but it also covers topics sometimes overlooked these days. Discussions of consent, bounds and feelings of love are each given their fair share of screen time.
There’s something deeply affecting at the heart of Professor Marston that tends to get overlooked these days: commanding characters. Just seeing the relationship between the three leads feels fully thought out and benefits from the fact that it’s based on real people. The last bit may seem like it’s harping on, but truly the performances are what elevate this particular film from the rest of the pack. Probably the most disheartening aspect to a movie like this is the fact that it shows how little we have accomplished, in someways, in the intervening decades. People are still so dismissive or judgmental of others, specially when it comes to relationships, or holding women back, that it can be best hoped that this is a reminder we must do better.
Countless true films are released at the end of the year seem overly showy, or fake, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women shows that it’s possible to make a captivating motion picture without annoying or superfluous flourishes. While it may seem like a decidedly simple on the surface, it’s a film no one should pass up the opportunity to check out.