The true story behind the world’s most powerful woman

'Professor Marston and the Wonder Women' review: just enough odd class to keep indulgent audiences intrigued

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
    
Director: Angela Robinson
Cert: 16
Genre: Drama
Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins

If you felt the recent Wonder Woman film was a bit vanilla and heteronormative then this (among other things) study of the comic book’s creation will offer stirring counterbalance.

William Moulton Marston and Elizabeth Holloway Marston – here made pulchritudinous flesh by hulking Luke Evans and bluestocking Rebecca Hall – forged a career as ground-breaking psychologists in the years between the wars. Working in various American universities, they developed a vital component of the lie detector and compiled controversial notes on gender difference. Later, driven by a desire to further feminist ideals and a barely concealed passion for bondage, William created the super-strong, super-fast Wonder Woman.

The details are much disputed by surviving family members but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women also argues that the couple pioneered the notion of the three-person marriage. They fell in with a student named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). Both women gave birth to children sired by Marston. They all lived in unconventional bliss until twitching suburban windows scared them elsewhere.

Angela Robinson's film moves smoothly as it establishes the remarkable set up. Hall has great fun spitting out the swearwords ladies weren't supposed to speak in the Prohibition years. Evans fills the screen with his cliff-face of a body and swells the soundtrack with his rich brown vowels. During its opening sequences the film most closely resembles a more ancient version of the TV series Masters of Sex. Sensitive matters are teased out in the language of hard science.


The eventual encounter with Olive Byrne leads, after tense misunderstanding, to a threesome so laced with polite, perfume-commercial sleaze you half-fear the involvement of E L James. Then the film sits in much the same place for its last third.

Quite a bit has gone wrong here. The script makes a reasonable argument for the acceptance of non-traditional family units, but doesn’t ask any questions about the appropriateness of teachers seducing their students.

The gradual accumulation of the Wonder Woman narrative – an Amazon costume here, a golden rope there – reaches the heights of absurdity when William receives a glass ornament in the shape of an aircraft (like the superhero's invisible plane, you see). Still, the picture has just enough odd class to keep indulgent audiences intrigued.

A worthwhile footnote to one of the year’s biggest films.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist