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Film review: 'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women'

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Functioning as a smart, adults-only companion piece to Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” provides the Amazonian princess with her second origin story of the year, this one focused on the life of her independent-minded creator, Dr. William Moulton Marston.

Luke Evans stars as Marston, who in the 1920’s worked as a professor of psychology at Radcliffe College alongside his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). The two make a great team, with William’s idealistic bent being balanced out by his more pragmatic, outspoken spouse. When one of William’s students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, “The Neon Demon”), applies to be his research assistant, he admits to feeling some attraction for the girl. Elizabeth is unphased, encouraging him to do as he pleases.

As all three work together on the development of a lie detector prototype, William and Elizabeth soon find that they’re both rather taken with Olive. And discovering that the more intimate the line of questioning, the better results the machine is able to produce, their tests of the device soon become its own form of foreplay. The tension gives way to the exploration of their desires, and all three eventually enter into a happy polyamorous relationship. Even as they pursue their bliss, they make every effort to keep their unorthodox private lives away from prying eyes of the prudish public. But of course, that’s easier said than done.

Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans, and Bella Heathcote in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” - PHOTO COURTESY ANNAPURNA PICTURES
  • PHOTO COURTESY ANNAPURNA PICTURES
  • Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans, and Bella Heathcote in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”

As the film delves into the throuple’s more kinky explorations — including steamy three-ways and S&M roleplaying — writer-director Angela Robinson refuses to treat her characters’ relationship in any way different from how a heterosexual couple’s relationship might be depicted. Plus, it’s endlessly entertaining to see how their various proclivities informed the Wonder Woman mythos. One can easily imagine a different version of this story directed by a male filmmaker, but Robinson’s nimble, judgment-free direction avoids the leering gaze that another director might have given the more prurient details.

When William’s personal habits eventually cost him his job, he lands upon the idea of incorporating his DISC theory — in which he hypothesizes that all of human social conventions can be broken down into four basic behaviors: dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance — into his desire to create a feminist superhero that would inspire young girls and boys alike. He succeeds in selling a publisher on the idea, and Diana of Themyscira is born.

It’s a fascinating story, aided by three great performances. Evans convinces us of Marston’s earnest motivations, and Hall is fantastic, capturing Elizabeth’s fierce intelligence and stubborn charm. As in last year’s “Christine,” she gives a remarkable performance that unfortunately seems doomed not to get the recognition it deserves. Meanwhile, Heathcote keeps Olive from seeming like a pushover, showing us how her submission to the married couple is anything but a passive decision on her part. Their character’s complementary personalities make the relationship work, and as the story requires, all three actors share a combustible onscreen chemistry.

Similar to what Bill Condon did with “Kinsey” (or, indeed, what Marston himself was after with his comics), Robinson wraps some unconventional ideas in a package that seems almost wholesome. In doing so, she manages to bring about one of the more nuanced depictions of polyamory I’ve seen onscreen — at least in a relatively mainstream setting.

Sure, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” falls into some familiar biopic tropes: When a character starts to cough conspicuously, it’s not hard to suss out where their plotline will ultimately be headed. And the narrative is given a rather conventional interview framework, taking place during Marston’s meeting with Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America in the mid-1940’s. She interrogates him, concerned that the unsavory ideas contained in the “Wonder Woman” comics are poisoning the minds of American children. Britton is good (as she always is), but the scenes feel unnecessary.

The film’s lush production values lend “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” a prestige sheen (incidentally, it’s not often that I find myself getting clothes envy, but Evans entire wardrobe is phenomenal, and I want it all). The unconventional themes the film explores balance out the more traditional aesthetic choices, making the somewhat subversive decision to frame the story as a standard biopic feel in its own way revolutionary.


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