PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN
Director: Angela Robinson
Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Chris Conroy, JJ Feild, Oliver Platt
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexual content including brief graphic images, and language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 10/13/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 13, 2017
If the real William Moulton Marston, the psychologist-turned-comic-book-writer, was anything like his film counterpart, he probably would be grateful that his presence in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is almost completely overshadowed by the two most significant women in his life. They were the basis for his sole comic creation, an Amazon warrior of Greek mythology with bullet-reflecting bracelets, an invisible jet, a lasso that can compel anyone to tell the truth, and a seemingly curious connection to what more than a few people saw as a sort of bondage fetish. With Wonder Woman back in the cultural zeitgeist (if the most famous female superhero ever really left it), writer/director Angela Robinson's film serves as a superhero origin story in a more literal and more literary-criticism meaning of the phrase.
Wonder Woman is on the film's mind from the start, with kids marching down the street with a wheelbarrow filled with comic books featuring the superhero. The next shot is of a group of people burning the comics in a field. It's strange to think that this was the norm at various points in this country, during times of prohibition and laws against "indecency." It's less strange to imagine a time when even the fictional depiction of loving relationships between women could cause a national scandal. If drawings of that fact, along with the bondage stuff, were enough to get entire towns' worth of people to burn comic books in a public square, just think of the outrage if two women wanted to live and raise their children together in peace and quiet.
In the film, two such women are Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), the wife of the film's eponymous professor, and Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the daughter of Ethel Byrne and the niece of Margaret Sanger, who together worked for the women's suffrage movement and, later, for birth control. Olive grew up in a Catholic boarding school, leading Elizabeth to laugh at the fact that the descendent of two radical feminists was brought up by nuns. Olive finds it less amusing, but Olive is of a completely different temperament Elizabeth and possesses qualities that the academic wouldn't want, if given the opportunity.
Together, the two women form William's (Luke Evans) idea of the "perfect woman." His wife is brilliant and ferocious. Olive is beautiful and kind. They all come to love each other, as Olive takes on a teaching assistant position to help the two academics develop William's model for human emotion. It's all about control—taking it and being subject to it. He's convinced that there are two versions of both of those qualities—one more positive and the other more negative. Between people, it can result in tension. When seen on a national scale, a dominant power and a compliant population can result in the fascism that's on the rise in Europe at the time of their studies, which also include an attempt to invent a lie detector test.
Even though Wonder Woman is on our mind from the very start of the film, the pieces of Marston's superhero come into place without us noticing (the lie detector and a magical lasso, a toy jet made of clear material and an invisible jet, and a look into the world of underground pornography and the outfits of the Amazon warrior women). Robinson's concern is more about this three-way relationship than with some fictional creation, although the filmmaker understands that the superhero is a reflection of the three characters' interests. More importantly, she's interested in how the public response to Wonder Woman is just a more "innocent" form of the anger that results from the fear of something outside the norm. The targets of that reflexive, irrational response may change as the years and decades pass, but the underlying fear and anger are always the same.
The film's concerns seem academic at first, with lectures on William's DISC model (dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance) on human psychology playing out between the professor, his wife, and their assistant. Olive is engaged to a straitlaced man (played by Chris Conroy), who can sense that something "abnormal" is happening between the three of them, but she is drawn to both Elizabeth, for her mind and her personality, and William. To what extent her attraction to William is because of his connection to Elizabeth is a mystery that even she is unwilling to explore. Even among rebels, there are taboos that cannot be spoken and lines that are best not crossed.
Some will be, though, and eventually, the trio creates a home—raising their children, financially struggling, and trying to mind their own business, like any other home in small-town America. Elizabeth and Olive keep the day-to-day stuff running, while William tries and fails at an assortment of scholarly pursuits, always hindered by the rumors that have chased him away from any academic position. To their neighbors, William and Elizabeth are married, while Olive is a widow whom the Marstons have invited into their home out of the kindness of their hearts. It's a secret identity, like any superhero has, and in case we miss some of the points, there are scenes in the film's present day, with Josette Frank (Connie Britton), the director of an organization with concerns about what kids are reading, interrogating William on how much of Wonder Woman is subversive propaganda.
The film is an intriguing look at the unlikely, real-life influences that helped to create a superhero, but it's even more fascinating as a study of the subconscious or unconscious ways of the mind working on the hearts of these characters. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women ensures that we won't look at Wonder Woman in the same way, which means the film is successful as drama and literary analysis.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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