Director: Angela Robinson
Screenplay: Angela Robinson
Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, JJ Feild, Oliver Platt, Connie Britton
Runtime: 108 Minutes
The origin story behind the character of Wonder Woman has been pining for adaptation for decades, if only because it’s so much more intensely fascinating than that of any other character in the medium. The brainchild of William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), psychologist and inventor of the lie detector whose polyamorous relationship between his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and his mistress, Olivia Byrne (Bella Heathcote) – as well as his work in DISC assessment – fed into the conception of his beloved comic book character Wonder Woman, and the controversy the comic generated.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells a version of the story that’s close enough to encourage further reading and discussion, and still compelling and thematically stimulating enough to stand on its own as a terrific piece of dramatic historical storytelling. It’s charged with hypersexuality and applied theory, kinky, smutty and dirty as hell – and loves every second of it.
A keystroke in the film’s genius is writer/director Angela Robinson’s structural approach to storytelling that follows the foundations of Marston’s own DISC Theory work; Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. It embeds the film with pure and stimulating subtext under both societal and personal terms. Marston’s observations and studies of female relationships through the exercises of power and dominance in campus life, and similar dispositions of the period create a cocktail of influence and reading in elements that slowly create the character.
It has long been purported (though never confirmed) that Wonder Woman was the binding of both women in Marston’s life, with Elizabeth’s attitude and will combined with former student Olivia’s appearance and good-natured heart to form the ideal woman. It’s a reductive and hapless sentiment that the film upholds but somehow manages to pull it off by how sincerely it believes in the characters and their own struggles to live their unorthodox lifestyle in an unaccepting society.
The benefit of a mature rating allows the film to dig into many of the more looked over elements of the character’s origins that were gradually buried as time went on, the initial wave of conception being focused on using the familiar superhero formula to drive home is radical theories on sexuality as a form of easily consumable propaganda. Of course, these elements of lesbianism, shattering of gender roles and overwhelming use of bondage imagery couldn’t go unnoticed and stirred up major controversy around Marston in his final years.
Bondage is a recurring element of the films visual construction and narrative, not just acting as the symbolic representation of the restraints of women in society, and their ability to reclaim said power for themselves, but also his own fetishist fascination with BDSM which he feels best exemplifies his theory. An understanding that appears to be shared by Elizabeth and Olive, though only in the restrictions of the film and apparently not so in real life.
The film feels sexy without being objectifying, Marston has given in to his partners as much as much as Olive has into their own marital situation. The narrative is formed around them trying to figure out their respected roles in their relationship. In the film’s best scene, the vision of the classic character is formed in an intense moment of character growth as the position on their relationship changes, and Elizabeth ties up Olive in a sensually staged scene that looks and sounds like a moment of intense realisation and emotional breakthrough.
The performances from the three leads are fantastically compelling, enjoyably emotional and fun, they all share a great deal of chemistry that shifts to suit their perspectives. Evans is playing his role like a combination of Carl Jung, Nikola Tesla and Hugh Hefner, while Heathcote is proving herself an engaging and understated screen presence more and more. But the standout is once again Hall, who adds yet another performance to the career-best highlights real which will surely punctuate her eventual (hopeful) Oscar win at some point in her future. Her strange transatlantic inflections feel initially strange but only makes her seem more out of place and otherworldly as she at first struggles to register her emotions beyond formalities.
There are some weaknesses to the film, seemingly down to its position as a small-scale production. At times it feels a little rushed, and instances in which Olive appears to have had another child in-between scenes without warning become a little distracting as too the passage of time. It’s also at its weakest when it is looking the audience directly in the eye and stating the obviousness of its intent with a thick literal explanation, which is a shame because the dialogue is strong for the most part (“They’re not fascists, they’re capitalists”, ”Same thing”).
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women captures the essence of its brilliant and radical fictional character with force and personality, but doubles as one of the year’s most interesting dramas by charging at its fascinating history through elaborated playfulness, lightness and modest power.