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Coming out just in time to ride the wave of rekindled interest in the DC comics character, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is the true, stranger-than-fiction story of how the world-famous superheroine came into being. She sprang from the mind of Dr. William Moulton Marston, a visionary professor of psychology, who wanted to teach little boys to respect powerful women. But writer-director Angela Robinson’s biopic goes far beyond that to examine the unconventional relationship of Marston, his wife and his mistress, who lived together. Its non-stop feminist message can get a little heavy-handed at times, but the story pushes all the right buttons for women viewers and hopefully for a good number of little boys, too.
Coinciding with the recent release of Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman, this well-crafted indie beautifully cast with Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as the loving trio of forward-thinking intellectuals should stand a fighting chance of going beyond niche and LGBTQ audiences to a bigger marketplace. It is being released this fall by Annapurna Pictures in the U.S. and internationally by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, following its Toronto bow.
Prof. Marston teaches psychology at Radcliffe, where he propounds his DISC theory, that all human behavior can be traced to a form of dominance, inducement, submission or compliance. Played by the magnetic Evans (Beauty and the Beast) as a younger and sexier version of the good professor, he projects enthusiasm in front of an all-female class that has an element of seduction in it. This doesn’t escape his arch wife Elizabeth (British actress Hall, who starred as the TV reporter in Christine.) Witty and sharp-tongued, she reminds him she’s the more brilliant member of the couple (he doesn’t disagree) and that Harvard’s sexist politics have crippled her own career in psychology.
When his attention fastens on a pretty blonde student, Olive Byrne (Fifty Shades Darker’s Bella Heathcote), the sophisticated Elizabeth pretends she is untouched by sexual jealousy. “I’m your wife, not your jailer,” she tosses off. Alone with Olive, however, she sternly warns the girl she had better not go to bed with her husband in startlingly modern, uncensored language and a typical confrontational style that Hall pulls off extremely well.
Belying her look of waifish innocence and purity, Olive turns out to be an even more daring rebel than the Marstons. She comes from a line of notable feminists: her aunt is birth control activist Margaret Sanger and her mother fought for women’s suffrage, ironically abandoning Olive in a convent school to devote her life to the movement. She is ripe for recruitment as a teaching assistant and guinea pig for the Marstons’ research on human psychology. Recalling Masters and Johnson’s famous study of human sexual response two decades later, they are shown peeping voyeuristically at a sorority ritual in which Olive spanks an unruly newbie.
“People are happiest when they submit to a loving authority,” believes Bill Marston, who later stumbles onto the world of bondage and S&M in a Greenwich Village specialty shop belonging to a gentleman known as the G-String King (JJ Feild in a suave cameo). In a beautifully shot scene that stirs Marston’s imagination (as it will stir the audience’s fantasies), Olive dons a silver burlesque costume, thigh boots and a tiara. Backlit against a golden light with large bracelets flashing at her wrists and a thick bondage rope looped over her hand like a magic lasso, she is a thrilling foretaste of the future Wonder Woman.
As the professor sagely remarks, wearing costumes and role-playing are the stuff of everyday life, where we are bound by much stronger chains. When Bill, Elizabeth and Olive face up to the fact they love each other, the hardest part isn’t becoming a sexual triad, but having the courage to live together under the critical eyes of conventional society. The birth of children brings additional complications.
Olive and Elizabeth are fascinating freethinkers in a day when sex was all but taboo, and it is obvious that they were the models for Bill’s superheroine. Intercut with the story about how the threesome moves to the suburbs to raise their extended family are Bill’s adventures writing the Wonder Woman stories and their first publication in December of 1941. According to the film, the comic strip was outselling Superman at one point.
This may have been partly due to his generous use of sexual images that depicted the iconic Amazon binding and spanking women, which soon got him and his publisher into hot water with the censors. Robinson’s screenplay keeps returning to his grilling by the influential moral gatekeeper Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America. Bill rebuts her every question with intelligence and passion, never stooping to pious lies or deception to make the comic strip’s violence, torture and S&M more palatable. His Wonder Woman is the powerful, liberated woman of tomorrow, he insists, and his young readers must learn to respect her.
Robinson covers a lot of material here, rarely stopping to pause and enjoy the weather. There’s little poetry in the growing feelings between Elizabeth and Olive and Bill, and less passion in the hurried seduction scenes which can seem perfunctory. Many rough edges are smoothed by the strong acting and well-done tech work.
Production companies: Topple Pictures, Boxspring Entertainment
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Monica Giordano, JJ Feild, Chris Conroy, Alexia Havins, Oliver Platt
Director-screenwriter: Angela Robinson
Producers: Terry Leonard, Amy Redford
Executive producers: Andrea Sperling, Jill Soloway, Clare Munn, Kai Cole, Buzz Koenig
Director of photography: Bryce Fortner
Production designer: Carl Sprague
Costume designer: Donna Maloney
Editor: Jeffrey M. Werner
Music: Tom Howe
Casting director: Eve Battaglia
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
World sales: Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions