Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

This week, I’d like to talk about a film that qualifies as SFF either tangentially or by association, and which I enjoyed enormously. If Argo counts as SFF enough to find itself on the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot, then surely Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is sufficiently close to speculative fiction for our purposes.

Written and directed by Angela Robinson on a small budget, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an imagined history of the relationship of William Moulton Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman), his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Marston’s lover Olive Byrne. The film, according to accounts by the Marstons’ descendants, bears as limited a relationship to the truth as ever any Hollywood biopic did, but as a drama about unconventional relationships in the early to mid twentieth century, it’s deeply compelling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women depicts Marston (Luke Evans, with a worn and down-at-heel air) and Elizabeth (an intense Rebecca Hall, gamine and expressive, capable of conveying entire paragraphs of feeling with a shift in her eyebrows) as collaborators in research in psychology, Elizabeth energetic and sharp and thwarted in her ambitions by convention and misogyny, despite Marston’s support: painfully aware of the restrictions the world imposes and the costs and consequences of transgression even as she chafes at them. When Olive Byrne (Australian Bella Heathcote, playing her role with a conscious sort of innocence; luminous but not exactly naive) becomes Marston’s teaching assistant, the three of them slide closer and closer to falling in love, until the unspoken currents between them finally become spoken, and their lack of discretion results in the Marstons’ disgrace and removal from academia.

The enduring undercurrent in the first phase of the film is power and truth: the different levels of power that the Marstons have in their world, the challenge that their attraction to Olive—and Olive’s attraction to them—presents to their stability as a couple, the power that they have over each other and the difficulty they have in embracing the truth about what they want when it comes to each other: and the problems that that truth will bring them, should the world discover it.

The rest of the film charts their lives as a polyamorous triad, circling around their discovery (and emotionally complicated) embrace of bondage, the creation of Wonder Woman, and the rupture in their relationship caused when the neighbours discover that Olive is not just platonically living with them. As a film, it’s productively uncomfortable, interestingly tense, particularly around the interrelationship of sex and power: the sex scenes are about honesty and connection, shot largely without sensuality; and the bondage scenes (of which there are a handful, only one of which is overtly sexual) are shot like sex scenes would be in a different film, foregrounding attraction, desire and trust. The film shows here the difference between chosen vulnerability in intimate connections between people—a willing surrender of power—and the vulnerability that none of the film’s protagonists chose, to a social disapproval that has the power to ruin them. And the vulnerability of Olive, as the member of their triad who isn’t protected by a legal covenant of marriage: vulnerable to rejection and exclusion, if Marston and Elizabeth choose.

This is an interesting interpretation of the genesis of Wonder Woman, and a vividly feminist imagining of an unconventional relationship. I enjoyed it a lot—and usually my taste in films runs more to explosions than tense interpersonal drama.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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