Angela Robinson’s film follows the stranger-than-fiction life of William Marston (Luke Evans) a psychologist and university professor who created the character of Wonder Woman for DC Comics in 1941. Also known for his contribution to the invention of the lie detector in 1920s, Professor Marston’s life with his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is shown as an unconventional romantic partnership along with their research assistant Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).
The biopic starts with the notion that ‘a person is most happy when they are submissive to a loving authority.’ With all the trappings of tasteful period piece, the true-story origins-tweedy collegiate setting costume drama shakes you a little and even squirms. Make that a lot. Several steamy scenes with three-way kinky games between the professor, his wife and muse have combustible chemistry that adorn the screenplay. Timed well to hit the theatres just four months after the release of the smash hit blockbuster Wonder Woman, it explores the ways in which female wisdom and strength can charge hearts and minds, influence culture and inspire others to be their most authentic selves. It takes a little while for the superhero to come into full blossom; her iconography is shown to emerge steadily in illuminating, amusing ways.
Writer/director Angela Robinson relies on a non-linear narrative structure—which moves back and forth and has been used in so many biopics, it’s become a cliché—to tell the tale of how the comic book heroine Diana Prince came into being. Though we have a hint from the start of a shared turn-on when the couple spies on Olive paddling a sorority pledge during a hazing ritual, supposedly as research for their theories on dominance and submission. We can also tell from the way Heathcote’s big, blue eyes widen even more that Olive is enjoying being watched. Scenes like these reveal how deftly Robinson builds suspense and how seamlessly she introduces the psychology that inspired Wonder Woman. And then she makes the mistake of undermining that tension by hopping back and forth in time, often at predicable moments.
The trajectory jumps in time between the 1920s when their unconventional relationship began and the 1940s when Professor Marston was being investigated as a criminal degenerate for the blatant sex and violence in the ‘Wonder Woman’ comics, which he invented under the pseudonym “Charles Moulton.” The indiscreet adultery of his life came close to ruining his career. He lost his job and to make money, the professor defied public morals and even the law, becoming an early promoter of pornography as art, engaged both his wife and lover in every kind of Kama Sutra, and finally made his fortune by combining their personalities into the character of the world’s first female superhero. The complexities of the relationship provided fodder for Wonder Woman, which fed the public’s secret appetite for sex, violence, torture and masochism. And so the film becomes a curious gauge of the continuing popularity of Wonder Woman and the feminist movement’s appreciation of her empowerment.
Although the film lacks the imagination of its free-thinking protagonists, it’s not dull over-all. The romance being explored here—which so rarely gets the Hollywood treatment and which the writer/director Angela Robinson takes such care to flesh out—is enough to keep things from ever feeling too staid. Considering Robinson hasn’t made a film in 12 years, it’s exciting to have her perspective back on film, especially because it makes it clear its disinterest in framing the biopic from the man’s point of view that most biopic adopt. Robinson is more interested in the two women in Professor Marston’s life and the fascinating ways their relationships intersect with both him and each other.
The performances by the film’s lead actors keeps the film compelling. While Bella Heathcote is fabulous, Luke Evans is charming in his careful manicured way, the film’s real star is Rebecca Hall who is absolutely dynamic as Elizabeth Holloway Marston. She brings to life a character that is neurotic, sometimes brutally blunt, and overtly frustrated at the lack of opportunity available to her in the ’20s. She loves Marston for his intelligence and his radical notions of interpersonal relationships, but has no illusions about his flaws or her own.
An obvious labour of love, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a film with extremely deep affection for its characters. Beneath the well-dressed period drama lies a warm enduring love story that challenges rigid gender roles and the social orthodoxy. It works in explaining a slice of pop-culture history we may have not known before and is impactful as a timeless celebration of strong women supporting each other.