While this might sound slightly stereotypical, I believe that, when looking at their overall work, each country around the world specialises in a certain type of film. For the Americans, they excel at the large-scale bombastic action films that fill our cinema screens on a weekly basis. But us British are far smaller, instead focusing on dramas about gritty gangsters or upper-class toffs. Other examples might be the Indians doubling down on the musical, and the Scandinavians showing off through their crime mysteries.
But what do the French do best? In one word?
I don’t know why, but French cinema might be the best in the world at showcasing unusual relationships and making them as engaging as possible. Case in point: 2014’s The New Girlfriend. A film which (I shit you not) is about a new widower; who then chooses to dress in his wife’s clothing and begins a relationship with his dead wife’s best friend. And it was one of the best films I saw that year!
The point, however, in bringing up this odd tangent, is that Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman (PMWW) might legitimately be the first American film I’ve seen about an unusual relationship that is as good as what the French have produced.
The year is 1947 and Professor William Marston (Luke Evans), the creator of Wonder Woman, is testifying to the suitability of his creation on American youths.
As he answers the questions set to him by Josette Frank (Connie Briton) and other representatives from the Child Study Association of America; we flashback to 1928, when he and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) hire a teaching assistant named Olive (Bella Heathcote).
While they attempt to keep things professional, there soon develops an attraction, first by William on Olive, but later by Olive on Elizabeth. In spite of the social mores of the time, the trio eventually embark on a relationship, one which will shape and define them for decades to come.
If there’s one shared superhero aspect that almost everyone’s heard of, it’s the secret identity. The image that said hero chooses to project to the world in the pursuit of protecting their personal lives and loved ones. That fundamentally is what PMWW is about. Yes, it’s a biopic. Yes, it’s a romance. Yes, it’s kind of kinky. But it is foremost about three people forced to hide behind a secret identity in order to fit into a world that does not accept them.
Writer/director Angela Robinson clearly wants to bring what would usually be mere subtext to the fore. Smartly, she achieves this by pushing the character of Wonder Woman to the background. Indeed, the famous comic only really starts playing a part in the proceedings come the final 30 or so minutes. By instead focusing on the relationship that birthed the beloved Amazonian, Robinson’s approach to the traditional biopic ends up feeling anything but traditional.
But the one thing Robinson succeeds in above all else is in her casting. It’s hard enough to cast one lead actor, but here she’s cast three individuals that play off each other so well that it’s hard not to swoon like a love-struck schoolgirl. Hell, you even overlook the fact that this is technically a story about two teachers who vastly overstep their boundaries with a student!
In Evans’ Marston we see a man desperate to make his mark on the world, with his firm belief in a psychological idea called DISC theory. Though Evans looks nothing like the actual Professor Marston (seriously, keep watching during the end credits), he brings a forcefulness in his performance, one that perfectly indicates just how much he wants his work to be taken seriously.
Of the trio Heathcote ends up being assigned the more passive role. Though she exists mostly as the catalyst for the range of emotions that permeate the script, she manages to hold her own in this intensely romantic ménage à trois.
But the standout performance is undoubtedly Rebecca Hall. If anything, she somewhat comes across as a 21st century woman stuck in a world of housewives and secretaries; and gives us a perfect insight into the struggles of a more under-served group from the early 20th century. With endless energy, it’s her that runs the gamut of emotions; from trying not to fall whim to simple jealously, while at the same time struggling as her own desires clash with her deeply embedded traditional values.
Easily one of the best dramas released this year, PMWW, at least on the surface, is a thoughtful and provocative look at a type of relationship that rarely gets any screen-time in traditional American cinema.
But at its core, it is a love story. A love story filled with passion, hope and sometimes tragedy; and one that is guaranteed to stay long in the mind.