Movie Review: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Let’s be honest here. According to Hollywood, anyone over 35 is considered old. I’m not referring to actresses, though Hollywood would apply this belief to them too. I’m referring to audiences, as nearly every big studio film these days is targeted to that highly coveted 18 to 35 demographic. In recent years, we’ve been inundated with films about superheroes, brooding teenagers, buffed characters both good and evil, or some combination of the above. Even the films about seemingly “everyday” adults often show them behaving worse than teenagers. So it’s nice once in a while to be able to watch a film about adults who behave like adults. PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is that kind of film. In other words, if you’re under 35, you either won’t like this film or you’ll be sorely disappointed by it because there’s not a frame of CGI to be seen.

As the film’s title suggests, PROFESSOR MARSTON has something to do with the comic book character, Wonder Woman. Don’t expect to see Gal Gadot in this film though. This story is about how the world’s most famous female superhero came into being. In 1928, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) was a psychology professor at Radcliffe College, the all-women’s arm of Harvard University. His wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA), was also a behavioural psychologist but she didn’t have the three initials after her name because Harvard wouldn’t confer a doctorate degree on a woman back then. But she certainly was her husband’s intellectual equal, and even if the world didn’t know it, he did. The Marstons were developing a device that could detect if a test subject was telling a lie but they couldn’t quite work out a reliable way of distinguishing between lies and truths. At the same time, Marston was developing his so-called DISC theory of human behaviour (I’ll let the movie explain it) and he hired one of his students, Olive Byrne (Australian actress, Bella Heathcote, TV’s NEIGHBOURS) to help them advance his work in that field.

Both Marstons were well ahead of their time when it came to sexual mores. Before long, they convinced Olive to join them in a polyamorous relationship, not that they had to try very hard as Olive was both the daughter and the niece of two of America’s most influential feminists of the day. When the university got wind of what they were up to behind closed doors, the Marstons were kicked out of the school. Academically disgraced and faced with limited financial prospects to be able to continue his research, he hit upon the idea of a powerful female comic book character who employed his DISC theory to fight injustice. Sure, she had some superpowers like her Lasso of Truth (her version of a lie detector) but, unlike Superman, she used her intelligence and love rather than her superstrength to save the day. Wonder Woman was a huge hit with America’s kids until the religious conservatives started to notice all the sexual undertones to the stories.

Had WONDER WOMAN (the movie) not been the massive box office hit that it was earlier this year, I doubt PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN would have ever been made but thankfully it was and it’s great. This is a fascinating story about a piece of Americana that so many people take for granted. Evans does wonderful work as Marston. I haven’t seen him in anything before so I have nothing to judge him by but he has a magnetic screen presence here. Hall is excellent as well, and many people are suggesting that she will nab an Oscar nomination for this performance. Perhaps both of them will. This film is rated Category III in Hong Kong, not for anything you see but for the subject matter, which deals with bondage, submission and three-ways. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having kids learn about these things in a responsible and mature manner so I’m disappointed (but not surprised) with the censors here for being so parochial. All the scenes that have “adult content” are done artfully and in extreme good taste. There’s nothing tawdry here, if that’s what you’re hoping for.

The film has come under criticism from the Marstons’ granddaughter, Christie Marston, who claims that the story is historically inaccurate. According to her, Elizabeth was very much in favour of William developing a comic book character based on their psychological theories as long as it would be a woman. As well, the granddaughter claims, Elizabeth and Olive were not lovers. Rather, they were more like sisters. I’m not going to doubt that either of these claims is true but it doesn’t matter. It’s still a good story. Interestingly, photos of the real William Marston seen at the end of the film show him to be rather portly — hardly the slim and dashing figure that Evans cuts in the film. I guess it proves that love, which can take many forms, can be blind as well.

PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN is a wonderful, sexy film with excellent performances throughout. Go see it.

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