Spanking, bondage and S&M. Three things not immediately associated with Wonder Woman, but thanks to Professor Marston and the Wonder Women written and directed by Angela Robinson (up the women!), the curious hidden story of this iconic bastion of feminine superpowers, gets its own origin flick.
Starring Luke Evans as Professor William Moulton Marston, last seen chugging ales and four dozen eggs as Gaston in the incredibly successful Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, Evans is the centre, if not the emotional heart of this story based on true events.
Marston is married to the out-spoken and ridiculously talented Elizabeth (the always impeccable Rebecca Hall), who has been denied a psychology professorship at Harvard, despite being cleverer than everyone on campus, including her husband who leads lectures on his own theories as she looks on from the sidelines. Elizabeth is coarse, dynamic and striking – everything that grassy Ivy League Boston in the 1920s just cannot to get to grips with.
The marriage is a competitive partnership that is bonded by love, mutual respect and an endearing understanding of the other’s foibles. When the couple need a research assistant to help them test their early iteration of the lie-detector test (yes, it’s all still true), their quietly rebellious world is about to be infiltrated.
Enter Olive Byrne, played with wide-eyed intensity by Bella Heathcote. Initially we are party to Marston’s instant attraction to the young student, but as the three bright sparks begin to muddle along, it is Elizabeth and Olive’s increasing affinity for one another that offers a unique opportunity for the three leads to embrace a sexual as well as an academic, simpatico. The scene in which Elizabeth finally allows herself act on her passion for Olive is one of the most intense scenes in the first half of the film, and Hall and Heathcote’s chemistry throughout is one of the highlights of the whole piece.
When the scandalous relationship is uncovered, Marston and his wife, along with Olive are forced to leave the campus behind, and it is from here that the evolution of the character that would go on to be Wonder Woman begins. Inspired by his interests in bondage (all in the name of science, of course) and desperate to provide for his unconventional family unit, the iconic superhero takes shape. “Suffering Sappho!” cries Wonder Woman in the early editions – there’s certainly none of that in the wonderful Wonder Woman movie of 2017.
Throughout, the film cuts to scenes with Marston attempting to justify and explain his comic book creation to the influencers of 1940s domestic life, the Child Study Association of America, and as the film enters its latter half, we are shown the reactions to both the Marston’s “perverted” lifestyle and the amusing and ultimately harmless instances of bondage play scattered throughout a wartime comic book for adults and children. Instead, the gold tinted and warmly filtered scenes of intellectual and sexual bliss from early on in the film make way for starkly coloured scenes that portray how the family have to emerge from their self-created Eden within a picket-fenced US suburbia.
As Elizabeth and Olive, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote offer one of the most believable bonds on film this year, and Luke Evans as the titular professor is effortlessly charismatic as an ambitious chancer who was inspired by the women in his life.
I really admire how proudly this film wears its heart on its sleeve, even if the more convenient elements of the story have been conflated or altered to make a more palatable and narratively coherent version of events. It’s such a shame that this film disappeared completely under the radar, especially in the wake of the success of Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman movie. The two features together make an incredibly satisfying double-bill.
Seek this one out if you’re in the mood for a heartfelt film that’s tantalisingly tongue in cheek at times and has plenty of rope-play. Now there’s a combo.