Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Year: 2017
Directed by: Angela Robinson
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton

Written by Fiona Underhill

To be honest, the title of this film almost put me off this film altogether and having seen it, I still think  the title is pretty awful. However, I’m glad I paid more attention to the film as the release date drew near and I started hearing very positive things about it on Twitter. I am not sure to what extent this was planned and designed, but I’m extremely thankful that this story has come out in the same year as Patty Jenkins’ ‘Wonder Woman‘. I had no idea about this back-story to the creation of the character and the reception to the first comics and it is a fascinating story indeed.

The story is framed by the titular Professor Marston (Luke Evans) having to account for himself before Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a Mary Whitehouse-type figure with a moral crusade against inappropriate material in children’s literature, including comics. He then tells the story of his work as a Harvard psychologist, or more specifically, a Professor at Radcliffe college, a women-only ‘wing’ of Harvard. He is married to Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), also a psychologist, working on her PhD and fighting to have it recognised by Harvard (instead of just Radcliffe, which is looked down upon). This is perhaps my issue with the title; William Moulton Marston is not the only ‘professor’ Marston and it is phrased as if the two ‘wonder women’ belong to him. The Marstons have an interesting side-line in inventing the lie detector test, using the subject’s heart rate as its prime indicator. Professor Marston becomes interested in one of his students, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote, who made an impression in ‘Neon Demon’) and she starts working for the Marstons as an assistant. Gradually it becomes apparent that there is a strong attraction between the three and they start an affair.

As always, Rebecca Hall is fantastic as the sweary, honest and extremely frank Elizabeth. Luke Evans is at his most attractive in the period suits and hats and Heathcote is also impressive after a strong couple of years for her (‘Pride, Prejudice & Zombies’, ‘The Man in the High Castle’, ‘Fifty Shades Darker’). Although it starts off as witnessing a man’s dreams come true (his wife encouraging an affair and a threesome, no less), it becomes apparent that this is not, for once, told from the male gaze. The writer-director Angela Robinson gives equal weight to the two women and their relationship with each other, as well as with William. You genuinely get the impression that all three are in love with one another. Of course, the relationship would be considered unconventional today, let alone in the 1950s and the ‘thruple’ obviously come up against many obstacles. Firstly, both Marstons’ careers are put on the line (forcing Elizabeth to become a secretary), then (after they have moved in together and started having children) there are problems with the neighbours and the children’s school friends.

Professor Marston stumbles across a shop selling lingerie and pornography which has a room in the back for bondage demonstrations. Marston takes a ‘scholarly’ interest in all of this (purely for research purposes, of course) and invites the two ladies to participate. It is portrayed in the film that this has a direct correlation to the inspiration for the character of Wonder Woman. Her Lasso of Truth (harking back to the lie detector test) and various depictions of people tied up in the comics are said to have been sparked by Marston’s interest in bondage. This is what triggers Josette Frank’s outrage and leads to copies of the comic being burned. You definitely get the the impression that William Marston was an enlightened feminist and that he channels this into the comics, but you don’t really see the process that takes him from psychologist to comic-book writer.

To the extent to which this story is entirely factual, I’m not sure. However, this film must be praised for its mostly positive depiction of a polygamous relationship and for exploring aspects of Wonder Woman that I certainly wasn’t aware of. The costumes, hair and make up are, of course, to die for and the acting is exemplary. It makes a great companion piece to the Jenkins film and it is fantastic to see a woman of colour being given an opportunity to make a film with themes such as this. It is worth your support for many reasons, so go see it!

Fiona’s Rating: 8.0/10

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