Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)


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I’ll go out on a limb and say the best way to make a film about women is to have one direct it. The fact that the title and trailer of this film focused on William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman and co-inventor of the lie detector, led me to suspect that this might be another hagiography of a bloke who supported women’s rights. Happily it is definitely not. It is a sexy tale that places the women firmly in the centre and has given me a new appreciation of Wonder Woman.

Marston (Luke Evans)  is unusual in that in the 1930s he lived in a polyamorous relationship with two women. A professor in psychology at Harvard, his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) struggled to gain a similar standing. An unconventional and outspoken woman, she was his equal in intellect and academic ability but, as a woman, could not her get her PhD thesis accepted by Harvard.

Marston had a theory of behavioural styles called DISC (dominance, inducement, submission, compliance) based on the notion that happiness is found when we submit to a loving authority. If we do it unwillingly, it is compliance and not a good thing. A student, Olive Byrne (Australian Bella Heathcote), takes on a job as their research assistant. She is the daughter of Ethel Byrne and niece of feminist Margaret Sanger, two prominent feminists and agitators in the fight for women’s suffrage. It soon becomes clear that she has a strong attraction and connection with them both.

This is prewar America though, so the scandal around their relationship leads to their dismissal from Harvard and blacklisting from any similar academic work. The three live together, have kids and try to hide the true nature of their relationship from neighbours. Influenced by the popularity of comics, Marston creates Suprema the Wonder Woman, an Amazon warrior who personifies the qualities of both Elizabeth and Olive. His publisher happily convinces him to lose the Suprema part of the title and the comic becomes a runaway success, giving them all an income.

Still committed to his psychology work, Marston can’t help but include aspects of his life, relationship and theory into the comic. The stories are peppered with dominance and submission, bondage, torture and confinement, often between women. Wonder Woman’s favourite exhortation is ‘Suffering Sappho!’, something that Marston must try to explain in 1945 when he comes under investigation for perverted themes.

The film cleverly overlays the DISC themes with the development of the relationship between the three, allowing us to see the difficulties inherent in submission. Although Marston is the backbone of the story, with much of the narrative framed around the investigation of him in 1945, the bulk of it is about the two women. They are fascinating, Hall in particular superbly portraying a strong and complex woman. The sex scenes are erotic and tasteful and never seem there just for titillation.

Although based on a true story, I’m sure many facts have been smoothed and glossed over. There is a warmth of colour and mood to the film that feels like a golden view of the past, as if we are seeing a memory where the grubby details have been lost. I found myself forgiving of this, swept up in the story and even shedding a few tears at the end when we see real photos of the three and find out how their lives played out.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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