“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” sells itself on the gravitas of the second half its title, and unsuspecting audience members will be pleasantly surprised that the film is not a one-stop origin story of “I have this great idea for a new kind of superhero.” One could more honestly and crudely summarize the film as “How Professor Marston, his two lady partners and BDSM made Diana of Themyscira.”
To quote Wonder Woman herself, “Suffering Sappho!”
I imagine that initial reaction is what Dr. William Moulton Marston (a charming-as-ever Luke Evans) saw his lasso-wielding creation crying out to her naysayers from the dozens of comic book covers in the first shot of this Angela Robinson-directed biopic. As the stacks burn to a crisp, one image of the Amazon goddess stands out, looking as though she’s ready to leap from the page into Marston’s arms and out of the inferno of those who condemned her implied ideology of bondage and lesbianism (see definition of “Sappho”).
Make no mistake: This is not a porno but a divinely woven portrait of a family founded on Marston’s radical-for-its-time idea that women should rule the world.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, Marston, a psychologist and inventor of an early prototype of the lie detector, presents a concept he refers to as “DISC” theory (Dominance; Inducement; Submission; and Compliance). The theory doubles as a narrative device to mold the viewer’s perception of the film’s sexual tension, intercourse and enduring dependability.
Starting with Marston’s interrogation by comic-book skeptic Josette Frank (Connie Britton), the film weaves delicious tension and detail between fifteen years of Marston’s personal life and the parallels of bondage by friend and foe in Wonder Woman’s world.
In a pivotal scene, Marston, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (a brilliant Rebecca Hall), and former teaching assistant-turned polygamous partner, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), watches a rope bondage demonstration at a BDSM store by the self-proclaimed G-string King (J.J. Feild).
“Does it hurt?” Marston asks.
“A little,” the G-string King’s model replies.
“Love is pain,” the G-string King adds, untying her to the revulsion of Holloway and the pleasure of Marston and Byrne. Marston extends the new possibilities of ropes and other products of this specialty sex shop beyond foreplay to storytelling (cue the Lasso of Truth). At this point, we want to be in more than just the hands of these actors.
Robinson, who also wrote the film, makes a solid contribution to what is shaping up to be the season of the biopic, joining “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” “Darkest Hour,” “Marshall” and “LBJ.” Wonder Woman’s recent big-screen presence also enhances “Professor Marston’s” relevance and marketability.
The title says it all. This is a story that celebrates the dynamic women in Marston’s life who influenced his work in both psychology and comics. As for the romance and kinkiness, one of the great “wonders” (pun intended) of Robinson’s iteration is a satisfyingly straightforward approach to humanity’s sexual longing and emotional charges rarely translated properly onscreen. Threesomes? Kinks? Shocking! But not really.
“Professor Marston” tells and shows it like it is. The main trio’s performances divert any shock from their sexual escapades to their raw admiration for one another, both physically and intellectually.
The result is a sincerely performed and beautifully written (though some facts are altered for cinematic purposes) vignette of what withstands in a relationship when its purity is scrutinized by voices of neighbors and authority.
Written by Emilie Kefalas.