Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women sounds like the title of yet another superhero movie, albeit a rather schlocky one, but it’s not.  There are heroes, of sorts, but they are very real.

This is the real life story of psychologist William Moulton Marston, who has two contrasting claims to fame. He created Wonder Woman and, with his wife, invented the lie detector. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of his fascinating life story. As a biopic, it feels like Kinsey meets Tom of Finland.

The narrative is framed by a scene where Marston (Chris Evans, looking very much like a robust 1940s matinee idol) defending his creation, Wonder Woman, against claims by a committee that the constant depictions of bondage and beatings and the heroin’s skimpy outfit are too unwholesome for the American public.

We cut back to this scene from time to time, but the central storyline is the professional and personal relationship between Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), who is also a psychologist.

William is much admired by his female students at Harvard and Radcliffe, and has a reputation for becoming obsessed with the odd protege or two, which Elizabeth pretends she’s OK with. Into their lives comes psychology student Bella (Olive Byrne). She’s young and beautiful, and of course, William falls for her. In fact they both do, and Bella is attracted to both of them.

And so begins a menage au trois which would very much ruin all their careers, not to mention the precarious nature of such a three-way affair being put through its paces by the lie detector that the Marstons have just invented.

Writer director Angela Robinson’s script is super sharp right from the first scene where we see Mr and Mrs Marston together, sitting on the university steps observing the young people around them and providing a running commentary on the underlying social restrictions and expectations placed upon them. It sets the bar for the cagey dialogue between the married couple throughout the film, which is loaded with subtext.

It’s a real treat to witness such potentially sensational themes as sexual fantasies and bisexual relationships handled with intelligence and complexity.

The film covers a lot of terrain, with an unconventional arc that actually makes it feel longer than it is. But it’s an undeniably daring and fascinating study of three extraordinary people who were brave enough to defy the mores of the time.

Like Detroit, the film has stumbled at the box office in America. The distributors there were unwise to open it wide, and were probably aiming at the wrong audience. This is not a popcorn movie, it’s absolutely an arthouse film, and a very fine one at that.    

✭✭✭✭

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is currently in limited release

Richard Leathem @dickiegee