Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Review by Ben Nicholson

Directed by

Angela Robinson

Starring

Bella Heathcote Luke Evans Rebecca Hall

Anticipation.

Comic origins and pre-watershed period kink? Nah.

Enjoyment.

Sparks fly in first act foreplay but ardour cools.

In Retrospect.

Charismatic performances just about stave off post-coital malaise.

Bella Heathcote plays the real-life inspiration for a comic book icon in this entertaining origin story.

In an origin story that’s been re-vamped and revised for several decades, Wonder Woman’s inception has ranged from clay moulding to the loins of the loud-thundering Zeus. Her real-world beginnings – born of psychology, polyamory and the polygraph machine – seem almost as far- fetched, and provide the foundation of Angela Robinson’s handsomely staged Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. While the ingredients are all in place for a weird creation myth worthy of the character’s unusual history, the narrative becomes pedestrian and vanilla in comparison to the frames of early comics that often fill the screen.

At one stage, the eponymous Dr William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is instructed by the comic book pioneer Max Gaines (Oliver Platt) to “cut the kink by 50 to 60 per cent.” While Marston bristles at the note, the film largely takes it on board. The opening act sees 1920s Harvard psychologist Marston and his academic wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) exploring the prospect of a ménage à trois with comely student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).

There’s a real frisson in these early scenes – you’d be hard pressed to find a more charged use of a lie-detector test – particularly with regards to the two women’s anxiety and excitement about the transgression of their mutual desire. This drops off markedly after they consummate their threesome. By the time they’ve all been ejected from academia for their choice of lifestyle, and Marston has stumbled across the world of bondage and pornography that would lead him to invent Wonder Woman herself, the atmosphere has stultified.

Despite the repercussions of their actions having clear, far-reaching effects, the stakes feel diminished. This is even – in fact, especially – the case during Marston’s grilling by censors about Wonder Woman’s BDSM content which provides a framing device through which the story is told in flashback. He’s attempting to defend the comics, and secretly his lifestyle, to Connie Britton’s head of the Child Study Association of America, but the debate never reaches a rousing climax, let alone a resolution. Robinson’s screenplay engages with all the right elements, discussing the empowerment and equality that Marston was striving for alongside the personal sexual proclivities that he conveniently couched them in. There’s ample complexity and nuance written into these issues and characters, but it only intermittently coalesces to truly satisfying ends.

Evans imbues Marston with an easy charisma and admirable resolve, but he can’t help playing a leering third wheel to the more compelling dynamic at work – that of Elizabeth and Olive. Right from the first moment, Rebecca Hall steals every scene; a brilliant intellect hamstrung by the gender myopia of her time. She’s steely and combative in the face of a world that refuses to recognise her, but wonderfully vulnerable when confronted with a life her radical principles endorse but the living of which remains terrifying. Marston’s name may be in the title, but it is the relationship between the two women – the dual inspirations for the icon – that is most confidently handled by Robinson and that remains riveting even as the wider drama tails off.

Published 9 Nov 2017

Tags: Bella Heathcote Rebecca Hall

Anticipation.

Comic origins and pre-watershed period kink? Nah.

Enjoyment.

Sparks fly in first act foreplay but ardour cools.

In Retrospect.

Charismatic performances just about stave off post-coital malaise.

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