In the 1950's, unusual book burnings took place in America. They were of comic books and one of the targets was one of today's most beloved Superheroes, Wonder Woman. The reasons why can be traced back to the unconventional lifestyle of its creator and influencers, "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women."
Writer/director Angela Robinson's ("Herbie Fully Loaded") passion project has been blessed with exquisite timing, having been in the works long before this year's "Wonder Woman" was released or Jill Lepore's 'The Secret History of Wonder Woman' was published. With "Wonder Woman" having stormed the box office over the summer, many should be curious about its origins (and if they haven't read Lepore's book, many may be surprised).
Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans, 2017's "Beauty and the Beast") hailed from a prominent Boston family and we first meet him being interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a champion of morality in children's literature, over the bondage, spanking, torture, homosexuality and 'other perversions' found in his comic book series. Robinson will return to this interview throughout her film, using it to highlight major themes in her story.
It's beginnings took place at Harvard University in the late 1920's, where the psychology professor had just published his DISC theory, establishing all human interactions as being motivated by dominance, inducement, submission and compliance. Meanwhile his (at least) equally brilliant wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, "The Gift," "Christine"), is chafing against Harvard's refusal to grant her a degree (they will only bestow it through Radcliffe) and keeping a watchful eye on her husband's seeming obsession with one of his students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, "Dark Shadows"). When Byrne is hired as their assistant at Tufts, they get off to a rocky start, Elizabeth losing her personal struggle with jealousy while Byrne must choose between a conventional life with her fiance or an exciting yet potentially scandalous one with the Marstons. It is Marston's development of his lie detector machine, perfected when his wife suggests he combine his systolic blood pressure test with his polygraph, which brings everything to a head as the trio use each other as test subjects. When Olive kisses Elizabeth, their paths have been chosen.
Soon the polyamorous relationship is an open secret. Marston loses his job and the three struggle on, Elizabeth taking a job as a secretary to support her husband's writing while Olive raises their children. One day William walks by the storefront of Charles Guyette (JJ Feild, "Austenland"), the 'King of the G-String,' and is drawn into the world of bondage like a moth to a flame. Once again, Elizabeth hesitates, her feminist instincts rejecting the sight of Olive bound, but home experimentation suggests it is the women who are dominant (William was a strong male feminist, believing that women's nurturing natures were better suited for government). It is a bondage outfit designed by Guyette for Byrne that inspires "Wonder Woman." In the 1940's, comic book publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) has no qualms about publishing it to huge acclaim and popularity.
Robinson uses frequent cutaways to comic book frames to illustrate ties between them and the Marstons' personal history, an analysis of the creative process. But it is the relationship and power balance of these three complex individuals that drive her narrative. It is Elizabeth Marston, the most doubtful, who emerges as the strongest character, Hall's ability to express often conflicting emotions creating a mesmerizing performance. Evans's Marston is a charming free thinker and sexual experimenter, subtly layered with vestiges of period sexism yet unafraid to submit to two women. Heathcote takes Olive in hand from wide eyed virgin to saucy kid in a candy shop. Sex scenes among the three never feel salacious, Robinson and her cast embuing them with sensual adventure (caught in flagrante by a neighbor, we commiserate with their interrupted privacy over her shock).
The film was shot on location in Massachusetts and captures the dark wood academia and rambling old homes of the era. Donna Maloney's ("Joy") integral costume design adds psychological depth and period flair. "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" is one of the most unique biopics to come down the pike in quite some time. Forgotten in their later lives, these are three people whose histories are well worth celebrating (Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together thirty years after Marston's death).
Robin gives "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" a B-.
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