D: Angela Robinson / 108m
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, JJ Feild, Oliver Platt, Chris Conroy, Alexa Havins
The creation of Wonder Woman, or at least, the source of her creation, is the kind of story that should be filed under “so incredible it must be true”. And that’s exactly right. Wonder Woman was the lasso-twirling, tiara-wearing brainchild of ex-Harvard faculty member William Moulton Marston (Evans), a psychology professor who also invented the systolic blood pressure cuff used with lie detectors (though he forgot to patent it). Wonder Woman was born out of Marston’s belief that women could only truly be happy by “submitting to a loving authority”, i.e. a husband. As a result, the early Wonder Woman comic strips were full of scenes of bondage, domination and spanking, with the majority of the female characters passively accepting their situations. Some of this was due to the structure of Marston’s private life. He was married to Elizabeth (Hall), also a professor of psychology, and they in turn lived with a research assistant of Marston’s who became their joint lover, Olive Byrne (Heathcote). Both women had children by Marston, and for a number of years their living arrangements went unquestioned. This polyamorous relationship led to Marston’s creation of the Amazonian princess, but even though the Wonder Woman comic strip was enormously popular, its content ensured that it would fall under the spotlight of Josette Frank (Britton) and the Child Study Association of America, and find itself at risk of public censure…
In telling Marston’s story, and that of Elizabeth and Olive, Angela Robinson’s earnest biopic relates a story of a ménage à trois that succeeded on its own terms, and in flagrant defiance of the societal norms of the period. This is the movie’s focus: not the creation of Wonder Woman, but the creation of a three-way relationship that withstood both internal and external pressures, the addition of children (four in total), long periods where Marston was reliant on his writing to bring in money (Elizabeth was a better breadwinner), and which did so because of the trio’s commitment to each other (though inevitably, there’s a blip). Robinson’s screenplay is firmly on the side of Marston and his two Wonder Women, and the personal and sexual explorations they undertook in order to make their relationship work, and if there isn’t too much in the way of judgment or objective criticism about the nature of their private lives, then it doesn’t hurt the story overall. But there are moments where the narrative seems in need of a dramatic push, and Robinson obliges accordingly.
But this is a movie about feelings, and emotions, and the best way of expressing them. Refreshingly, and aside from a closing scene in a hospital room that seems to go on for far too long (see if you think someone should have come in at some point), the characters make their points succinctly and quickly before moving on the next, and despite some occasionally clunky expository dialogue, the cast all give strong, skillful performances. It’s good to see Evans taking on a more meatier role than of late, and he expertly navigates the twin poles of Marston’s personality, aiming for dominance in his public and working lives, while being submissive in private. Hall is terrific as Elizabeth, hiding her vulnerability and insecurities behind a fearsome exterior, and Heathcote is equally impressive as Olive, the young woman neither Marston nor his wife can live without. As a framing device, Marston’s meeting with Frank doesn’t always tie up with what amount to flashbacks of his life up until then, but it does give the viewer a better understanding of Marston’s views on relationships and submission and all areas in between. This is a movie that’s unafraid to explore issues surrounding marriage and polygamy and notions of what constitutes individual pleasure, and in doing so proves itself to be intelligent and thought-provoking, though a little too matter-of-fact in its approach.
Rating: 7/10 – purposeful and intense for the most part, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women plays it straight, and in doing so, does justice to its trio of lead characters and their unconventional lifestyles; Bryce Fortner’s cinematography adds a layer of nostalgia to things, and Robinson is to be congratulated for interpreting Marston’s life in such a way that the majority of the movie remains plausible if not always entirely convincing.