Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

With fortuitous timing, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women arrives perfectly timed to cash in on the current popularity of Wonder Woman. Not that the movie could accurately be described as a cash in, it is a delightful film. In some ways very traditional and in others very unconventional.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of psychology professor William Moulton Marston, who created the superhero Wonder Woman, with some help from his wife and girlfriend. That wife and girlfriend thing is what the movie is really about. It is based on the real life of this triad, Marston, Elizabeth Holloway and Olive Byrne. Holloway and Marston are already married at the start, when Marston becomes infatuated with their new student assistant Byrne. A romance develops between the three of them that leads to a sort of triad.

One of the best things this movie does is to stage the movie as a traditional romance. Formally this is very much a classic romance, with the same sort of obstacles and journey, only that structure is applied to a love story that is anything but traditional. It works, not toning down the content of the story but also not presenting it as lurid or obscene, just a normally somewhat melodramatic romance. At the time, and really would be even now, their story was a sensational one. Their triad relationship is pretty outre, with or without the bondage. From the account in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Professor Marston actually plays up the luridness of the relationship in content, but because the movie doesn’t present it as such, it plays very differently. Ignoring any sort of moralistic concerns, the relationship at the heart of this movie was apparently a happy and long lasting one. It is presented as a true love story and the facts back that up. By not staging it as something extreme, it downplays the differentness of the relationship, including the absolute ickiness of the fact that it began while Olive was Marston’s student, allowing the other parts to shine through.

It is also just well constructed. Luke Evans is fun as William Marston, being almost childlike in his enthusiasm but also clearly educated. He is an idealist and a fantastic weirdo and Evans brings that across. Bella Heathcote brings vulnerability but not truly naivety to Olive Byrne. She knows what she is getting into and goes into it hopefully but not blindly. Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth gives the best performance as the voice of reason in this triad, the one who recognizes how this will be viewed by others and how hard it will hurt their reputation and their children. She isn’t cold, but she is pragmatic. Hall makes her conflicts clear, she is clearly not unfeeling; she wants this relationship too. But she has the hardest journey to get to the point of believing in it. Mostly because she is more experienced than Olive and more rational than her husband. Again, the movie is kind of old fashioned in its presentation, which works well as a contrast with the content.

The one part of the movie that gets kind of sidelined is the creation of Wonder Woman. As a comic fan, I immediately recognized that it was somewhat fictionalized. But little about the character or the content really come through. That is not what this movie is really about, it is a small part of a larger story, but it supposedly builds up to his hearing with the decency board and that thread is ultimately unfulfilling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is one of the more entertaining biopics I’ve seen in recent years. It tells a story that legitimately hasn’t been seen before, or at least tells this story in a new way. It is highly worth seeing, though fans of this summer’s Wonder Woman might not get the story of that character’s creation that they might expect.

****1/2

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