Alive at the Bath Film Festival: Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

Guess which one is key art

I suppose we all have our gets. It don’t really matter how saccharine or whitewashy or manipulative queer historical fiction gets, I will always be onboard. One hundred percent, all the time. When it takes the combined charmlessness of Tom Hooper’s self-satisfied direction and one of Eddie Redmayne’s equally self-satisfied performances to finally sap my patience with the genre, I know I am a damn fool for it.

It’s personal in a way, I don’t like being the descendant of history’s outcasts. The weight of their unexpressed potential hangs heavy over me, we may be finally finding our shaky way towards acceptance but it is the I that will always remain unacceptable. If I am to find my history it must be in the lives of stronger people, and we are obliged to make it that way.

From its title you would probably overestimate the amount of time that the film spends on the creation of Wonder Woman. Outside of a perfunctory framing narrative comprised of the good professor’s oral arguments to the obscenity claims made by some concerned religious types, the superhero saviour of the DCEU is relegated to a sorta third act B-plot. Writer/director Angela Robinson seems far more concerned with the imagery and aesthetics the material gives her access to than any of the nerd shit.

I’m sure there’s a story to be told there: we touch on it, the overweight executive with the Brooklyn accent in the shabby office shouting ‘A lady superhero, it’ll never work.’ Marston don’t seem the type to let that stop him; by this point in the film it’s the 1940s and he’s living in a polyamorous triad with his wife, their partner and both women’s children.

BDSM clubs were funkier back then

If this was directed by a man and didn’t star Luke Evans it would be patently ridiculous. But Luke Evans is one of the most attractive men alive and his buoyant charm survives the American accent. He feels made to be loved. Which is right, because he ain’t the subject of none of this, he’s the object. We are far more concerned with the thoughts and feelings of the women in his life. I’m sure the title was some sorta compromise to avoid getting in legal trouble but let’s be clear, the film ain’t about the Professor Marston bit. It’s about the Wonder Women.

What love these women have, the requisite scenes of them stumbling through their sexuality shot with Robinson’s free and active engagement with eroticism. They are Rebecca Hall (of 2016’s Christine) as Elizabeth Marston, subsumed by an educational system that will not allow a woman to graduate from Harvard, and as such will never allow her the academic standing of her husband. And Bella Heathcote (of 2016’s The Neon Demon) as Olive Byrne, their student and later teaching assistant, optimistic and forceful and pushing the cause of feminism that her parents had been so involved in.

They are fantastically drawn, and drawn together by this beautiful screenplay. The trivia of their involvement in developing the lie detector test results of shared communal outing so mercurial that you’re willing to forget for a moment that polygraph tests are mostly complete bullshit. Then how it goes on to approach the subject of polyamory, not as something outrageous or perverse. It’s a quietly subversive statement to say that we needn’t create new modes of personal interaction just because the majority don’t experience these situations.

Is that absinthe?

Our loves are loves, and our dramas are dramas, and a romance involving three people don’t gotta be any more incendiary or lurid than one involving two, or four, or any number for that matter. And when they get into the sorts of kinky sexy shit that you just know inspired those early Wonder Woman comics that can be spicy and sweet and fulfilling. It seems to be screaming at the top of its voice, ‘We. Are. Normal.’

Cos we out there, in your comic books and your neighbourhoods. Being radically feminist and radically queer and radical. You look online and every review has a different term for their relationship, the bad ones take almost a full paragraph to summarise it, we all still building a language, they all struggling to find the terms for something can be felt so easy.

The film feels, it really does. It looks beautiful and the cast, when all put in the same room, highlight the best in us. Gal Gadot’s Diana is gonna be headlining two of the biggest films of the year Patty Jenkins’ transcendent Wonder Woman, and whatever Snyder’s Justice League turns out to be. The version we’re getting looks to be a pretty heteronormative one.

I’ll not go so far as to say that’s millions of dollars of straight propaganda, but I am totally behind the indie film dedicated to queering that lens.

Professor Marston & the Wonder Women will be screening in the UK from November 10th

Five stars
Images courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

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