Professor Marston & the Wonder Women Review
Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"Wonder Woman" made $821 million worldwide, so the timing seems ideal for an intimately connected origin story.
The comic book superheroine's creator, free-thinking psychologist William Moulton Marston, introduced Wonder Woman (initially called Suprema, which sounds like a sugar substitute) in December 1941. In spirit as well as accessories, the bondage-prone island dweller, dreamed up by Marston as "psychological propaganda" for a more enlightened American society, owed crucial elements of her now-legendary persona to Marston's everyday life.
In that life, Marston served as one-third of a triangular relationship with his wife and research partner, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and with Olive Byrne, teaching assistant-turned-lover-turned-longtime partner to both. Jill Lepore's excellent 2014 account "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" delves into this true story. So does the more freely fictionalized "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," written and directed by Angela Robinson.
It's a lively and absorbing picture -- intelligently sexy, tastefully salacious but serious enough to stick. The film benefits especially from Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth, effortlessly in period, swigging bootleg hooch out of a science-lab beaker and delivering a withering glare like no one else. If they gave out Nobel prizes in withering glares, Hall would have a houseful.
The timing of this Annapurna Pictures project seems ideal, with one massive caveat. In America, even with all the adventurous, edgily explicit storytelling on TV, you can say goodbye to half your film's potential profits simply by offering a nonjudgmental depiction of a fully functioning menage a trois.
Robinson's film begins in 1945, with a prologue depicting apple-cheeked children and their clean-cut parents rabidly burning copies of "Wonder Woman" in protest. Marston is under questioning from fellow psychologist Josette Frank (Connie Britton, purring like a skeptical jungle cat) of the Child Study Association of America. Wonder Woman comics, she charges, are full of "sex perversion": images of bondage, discipline, spanking and intimations of homosexuality.
Marston, played by Luke Evans, doesn't deny the more obvious stuff. But his publisher, played by Oliver Platt, makes it plain: "We gotta cut the kink!" Hopping in and out of the 1945 scenes, "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" goes back to 1928, with Professor and Mrs. Marston at Radcliffe College. Marston's pet theory of behavioral psychology -- the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance -- has attracted some attention, though his books have not sold well. Meantime the Marstons are on the verge of perfecting a prototype of the lie-detector polygraph test.
One look at his new student, Olive, played by Bella Heathcote, and Marston's a goner. He knows it; Elizabeth knows it; soon Olive knows it, too. Elizabeth is likewise attracted to her. The Marstons sneak into Olive's sorority "baby party" one night and witnesses a spanking ritual. Director Robinson treats some of this material a touch solemnly, but the writing and the performances recognize the humor in the way these three arrive at an understanding.
Eventually they move in together, and both women have children by Marston, and "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" becomes a tricky sort of biopic, juggling censorship debates, free speech issues and the terrors of the American patriarchy. At the same time the script tries, and generally succeeds, in sorting out everyone's feelings, occasional jealousies and yearnings for a forbidden life. There are times when you know you're not getting the full and fully complicated story of how these three managed. But as Robinson's third theatrical feature, after "D.E.B.S." and "Herbie: Fully Loaded," it's a pretty good step up. (Robinson also directed several episodes of "The L Word," among other shows.)
The casting brings an added layer of glamour to this fact-based story. Evans, who played the bully hunk Gaston in the recent live-action "Beauty and the Beast," looks nothing like the real Marston, who was more of a Cecil Kellaway character actor type. But the Welsh-born Evans develops a keen, sympathetic rhythm with both the English-born Hall and the Australian native Heathcote.
At one point on the soundtrack the Frank Sinatra version of "East of the Sun" underscores a cozy domestic scene with husband, wife, lover and kids. "We'll nix the squares!" goes the refrain from that Tommy Dorsey arrangement. The tune may be a few years out of period, but it captures this disarming film in a nutshell. These three nixed the squares, all right, and figured out their very own design for living.
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language).
Running time: 1:48.