Biopics these days feel like forced Oscar Bait; as though the formula for an award, on behalf of the actors, is to talk in a funny accent or shout. To truly nail a true character, there’s more to it than just imitation. Films like Patch Adams, Diana and even A Beautiful Mind fail to succeed from a filmmaking standpoint, due to sappy music, biopic cliches and lacking in exploration of the spirit of the subject, to name but a few. They also contain performances that come off as a collection of “tics”, rather than a true embodiment of the subject that they are playing.
Meanwhile, great biopics like Walk the Line, Nixon and the innovative I’m Not There, are films that capture the spirit of the real-life subjects with the combination of fantastic performances that inhabit the subject and stellar filmmaking that does more than just recount a series of events.
When I went into seeing the new biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, all I knew about the film was that it involved the creation of the popular female superhero, Wonder Woman. What I didn’t expect to witness was one of the best movies of the year.
Luke Evans plays Professor William Marston, a famed college teacher and psychologist who is in the middle of creating an invention that would go on to be the lie detector. Collaborating with his wife, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), who is also a teacher, they become stuck in the way of progress and decide to hire a college student to help get them out of their creative slump. Their search for the perfect aide leads them to Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
Little do they know is their solid relationship that they will forge together will not only lead to the creation of the first female superhero, but also a relationship that shows love knows no bounds.
Once again, I had no clue of what the film was truly about, even when I saw the final trailer, which thankfully doesn’t spoil any of the moments. But this is a story that is about sexuality, dominance, submission, femininity, poly-amorous relationships and how they were treated and of course, the creation of Wonder Woman and the rapturous reactions it got from people.
With Angela Robinson‘s assured direction and screenwriting, she gamely handles all of the themes above with integrity and sincerity, easily resonating with the audience. Even the sexuality is handled tastefully, but never to the point of either being exploitative or lacking in passion.
In scenes of sexual discovery, character epiphanies and empowerment e.g. when Olive wears what would end up being a prototype of the Wonder Woman costume, Robinson subverts expectations of that scene and it ends up being surprisingly tense, emotionally stirring and inspiring, rather than going along the lines of prurience.
But even with the direction and scripting of Robinson, none of the film’s emotional power would be as effective as it stands without the trio of stellar performances from the three talented leads, as well as their palpable chemistry.
Having seen Luke Evans last in the mediocre live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, being miscast in the role of Gaston, I remember saying that he looked too smart to play a buffoon like that. In the case of Professor Marston, Evans pulls off the charisma, intelligence and passion of the character with gusto. Finally having a role on-screen that is worthy of his talents, Evans is an actor that I will be following steadfastly.
In the case of fellow Australian actress Bella Heathcote, she has given some good performances in films like The Neon Demon (where she is more like cyborg than human) and The Rewrite (where she charms and delights with maturity). In the case of Olive Byrne, Heathcote makes the progression of her character from timidness to empowerment play out in a convincing fashion that it makes the scene where she dons the prototype outfit of Wonder Woman that much more powerful.
But the best out of the three leads is Rebecca Hall. To think that she already peaked with her underseen performance in Christine, Hall gives a fantastic performance as Elizabeth Marston, conveying her tenacity, her quick wit and especially her vulnerability so brilliantly, it’s no wonder that Professor Marston would fall for such a fascinating woman.
The chemistry the three share is compelling, making it incredibly easy for the audience to root for them. Even when Robinson edges over the line of overusing the musical score by Tom Howe, it never annoys when these characters are so wonderfully human and engaging. So much so that it makes the story about the creation of Wonder Woman look inferior by comparison, which by the way, did make me look at the female superhero in a different light after I left the cinema.
As for its flaws, aside from the slight overuse of the musical score, the film does suffer a bit from creative licensing due to some questionable events that may seem a bit too phoney to be true, but in retrospect, it’s not that much of a flaw due to the fact that the film works because of the creative licensing.
For example, the Oliver Stone film JFK took major liberties with the events of history, but that never stopped it from being a great film. So why would such creative licensing stop Professor Marston and the Wonder Women from being a great film?
In either case, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women succeeds as a poly-amorous love story, a fascinating biopic, a compelling view on the creation of Wonder Woman and as a showcase for Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote.
Over the times, I usually say I love a film when I enjoyed it immensely, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the first film in 2017 that I fell in love with. Don’t let it fall into obscurity and go see it as soon as you can.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is in select cinemas in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from November 9th.