The year’s other big “Wonder Woman” movie includes plenty that would never make the cut in not just a studio-issued superhero blockbuster, but the vast majority of paint-by-number biopics, including: two long-form sequences involving a threesome, a secret venture to a clandestine sex toy-selling lingerie shop, a lie detector machine used as a form of foreplay, ropes, ropes, and more ropes, and a unshakable belief in the true power and reach of feminism. Angela Robinson’s fact-based film follows the eyebrow-raising personal life of Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) and the two great loves of his life, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and their shared partner Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), and how its unconventional bent led to the creation of Wonder Woman.
For as subversive as her subject matter is, Robinson couches her film in familiar trappings — the film uses a wraparound narrative device that connects past and present, with a deft touch towards the more shocking elements of William’s life. Fans eager to see the nuts-and-bolts creation of Diana Prince will likely be left disappointed, though Robinson ably and cleverly shows off the various influences that turned the comic book heroine into even a glimmer in William’s eye.
When he decides to cook up a comic book, Elizabeth and Olive are as surprised as the audience, and when he shows up at comic book visionary Max Gaines’ office to rattle of both his ideas and his accomplishments (he’s a Harvard psychologist! he invented the lie detector machine! he wants to make a feminist superhero to inspire young girls!), it’s appropriately striking and more than a little bit weird. Such was William’s life — and his life with Elizabeth and Olive, which forms the emotional and narrative center of the feature.
Kicking off in 1945, as William’s now-famous comic book is coming under major fire for its more questionable themes, most of them knowingly injected by William (including all that S&M stuff, the foundation of his more compelling ideas about how humans interact, and also a nod to his own sexual kinks), “Professor Marston” opens with William defending his creation to a snappy Connie Britton, playing a crusader for homespun values who has taken major offense at what the doctor is selling kiddos. As William explains what Wonder Woman is really about to Britton and her lackeys, the film slips back in 1928, when so much of it began. It’s a standard biopic narrative trick, but one that works when it comes to presenting an off-kilter story in an illuminating way.
William and his whipsmart wife Elizabeth (a wonderfully restrained Hall) approach most things with a rigorous brand of academic-leaning chatter — it’s both foreplay and genuine curiosity that pushes them to ask each other (and others) about their innermost desires. When the observant Olive arrives at Radcliffe, an eager student who signs up to assist the Marstons (while Harvard refuses to grant her a doctorate, Elizabeth still works alongside her husband), it upends even their most carefully conceived plans. For one, she’s pretty (and she’s sick of it being her most defining characteristic). For another, she’s searching for something bigger than just that.
“I don’t experience sexual jealousy,” Elizabeth proudly announces to William, before going out of her way to keep him away from young Olive. But Elizabeth’s first suspicions, that Olive and William are about to embark on a passionate affair, prove incorrect. Turns out, it’s the three of them that are about to fall in love. Robinson’s film hinges on not just her respectful treatment of the material — as kinky as “Professor Marston” is, and as wild as its three sexiest sequences get, the film is never salacious — but on performances from a cast just as dedicated to selling the material.
Evans, Hall, and Heathcote exhibit major chemistry (in every permutation) possible, but they also don’t wink at the storyline, playing a provocative story totally straight. And, at its heart, “Professor Marston” is a love story, just one that happens to involve three people. Make no mistake, the film doesn’t gloss over the sexual nature of the story, and Robinson and her cast go full throttle on the kinks that mark not just the three-pronged romance at its center, but the very creation of Wonder Woman herself (was she partially created in said backroom S&M shop? yes, and no).
While the film eventually settles into a predictable rhythm that doles out some predictable life lessons (“Professor Marston,” like so many other biopics before it, is driven by the idea that living an authentic life is the best option for the world’s luminaries), it’s hard to ignore the power of a story that can package unorthodox concepts in such readymade trappings. That might be the most clever concept of all — turning the unusual and despised into the kind of super-story that could inspire the world’s best hero into being. That’s worth fighting for.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on October 13.