Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman combines two movies, two identities, into one film. Both successful in their efforts, though one much more so than the other. Both versions are centered around three people: William Moulton Marston, a Harvard trained psychologist who taught at Harvard and Radcliffe in the 1920s and 30s. Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a Radcliffe trained psychologist and lawyer, because no women were allowed at Harvard (together the Marstsons created a test to measure systolic blood pressure, which then led to the creation of the polygraph test). And Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger and a student at Radcliffe. Olive becomes an assistant to William, then, eventually, lover and spouse to both Marstons.
One of the identities for this movie is as a companion piece to this summer’s Wonder Woman. This movie is a period piece set, in the first half of the 20th century, and it tells the origin story of one of the most iconic superheros in comic book history. This story is largely a biopic, and it contains stuffy universities, cranky publishers, kinky bondage practitioners, and suburban sex scandals. All the stuff that might make a dramatic origin story. If one regards Professor Marston and the Wonder Women in this light, as an introduction to the man and women behind Wonder Woman, and the controversy that surrounded the character, the film works, but in unremarkable ways.
The other, more elemental side of Professor Marston is also the far superior one. This movie is a subtle, emotional romance about an unconventional relationship. It is an erotic and intelligent drama, portraying smart, thoughtful adults with an undeniably attraction and sexual electricity that leads them in unexpected directions. This movie weighs seriously the consequences of being different–in this case polyamorous–in a culture that has little interest in accommodating difference, and it warns of the dangers of the banal forces normalcy that are so powerful in culture. It also portrays polyamory in the plain, airy depiction that coupled marriages receive with regularity. That as much as anything may be Professor Marston‘s greatest achievement.
Both levels of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women are anchored by Marston’s defense of his new superhero against allegations of immorality, obscenity, lesbianism, and a host of other so-caed improprieties. The film is structured in flashbacks, with the real time narrative showing Marston (Luke Evans) testifying on behalf of Wonder Woman before Josette Frank (Connie Britton), head of the Child Study Association and member of the comics Editorial Advisory Board.
The period drama is effective, the performances are all top-level (especially that of Rebecca Hall, who plays Elizabeth Marston), the unusual nature of the Marston-Byrne family is given an earnest and loving eye, even as the consequences of that relationship are never far from the surface.
At times, the two-tiered nature of Professor Marston comes apart. Fast-paced scenes of publishing industry squabbles feel in conflict with slow-paced sexual exploration, for example. But perhaps those conflicts are the point writer/director Angela Robinson is trying to make.
At first, what William, Elizabeth and Olive are doing is a “well-known secret.” Their discretion is lacking, it’s true, and their unwillingness or inability to hide their relationship costs them their professional lives. It’s then, after his reputation is lost but his love has flourished, that Marston creates Wonder Woman, and in her, a secret identity for his family and Diana’s. Robinson is interested in the notion of secrets: hidden identities, shame, fascinations, desires. After all, we can never know really know who we are talking to. Never really understand what motivates any individual to be the person they are. We can never know what secrets any one is hiding.
Eventually, as they must in the movies, these secrets lead to uncomfortable revelations. When they spill over, in Professor Marston, the movie does its most powerful and affecting work. Robinson asks all three of these adults what costs they’re willing to pay, what risks they’ll endure for the love that they share. That question remains a constant one, especially in this culture, where normalcy, no matter the damage it does, still rules the day.
–Christopher Zumski Finke