With a long-overdue big screen adventure for Wonder Woman generating huge box office returns earlier this summer, casual fans who find themselves curious about the superheroine’s real-life origin story may be shocked by what they discover. Not only was the Amazonian princess concocted by a Harvard psychologist named William Moulton Marston, but everything from her signature costume to her truth-revealing lasso were influenced by the unconventional (and at the time, scandalous) relationship between the professor, his wife, and a young research assistant.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women chronicles this relationship, beginning in 1928 with a lecture in which Marston (Luke Evans) first notices the beautiful and intelligent Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) in the front row of his classroom. He and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) – equally intelligent but lacking a degree thanks to the gender bias of the era – are on the hunt for an assistant, and Olive quickly becomes a frontrunner for the job, with Elizabeth keenly aware that her husband is being motivated by more than the girl’s intellect. “I don’t experience sexual jealousy,” she informs him. “I’m your wife, not your jailor.”
That Marston would become increasingly enamored with Olive is something of a foregone conclusion, but no one expects Olive to become equally interested in Elizabeth, nor for Elizabeth to reciprocate with feelings of her own. The exploration of these emotions, with each member of the trio desperately trying to deny the truth, results in one of Marston’s most important scientific discoveries: the systolic blood pressure test which would become the basis for an early version of the lie detector (and which creates some of the film’s most erotic and sexually charged moments, as each character is strapped to the machine and interrogated about their feelings).
As the bond between the Marstons and Olive deepens and their sexual boundaries continue to expand, it would be very easy for the film to descend into something tawdry and salacious, but director Angela Robinson (who also wrote the screenplay) never allows that to happen. As unconventional as their relationship may have seemed to outsiders, Robinson never treats her subjects as if they’re anything other than normal people, even as they’re experimenting with BDSM and generating cold looks from their colleagues and neighbors. That’s not to say that Professor Marston and the Wonder Women downplays the kink factor – quite the contrary, in fact – but Robinson handles this material with a tastefulness and a level of restraint that manages to make these sequences even steamier.
Despite Marston’s name being featured in the title, the film isn’t about him so much as it’s about the relationship between Elizabeth and Olive, and how that connection would influence all of their lives. Both actresses are tremendous here, with Hall’s role equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious (Elizabeth’s razor-sharp wit and affection for profanity elicits plenty of laughs), and Heathcote tackling some of the most emotionally demanding work of her career. Evans is just as charming as usual, though frequently overshadowed by his female counterparts, and Connie Britton appears in a brief but pivotal role as the leader of a committee that accuses comic books (especially Marston’s) of corrupting the morality of American youth. This sets up the film’s framing device, as we juxtapose between Marston fiercely defending the feminist ideals that Wonder Woman represents and the real-life events that inspired her creation.
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women hews closely to the biopic blueprint, and its third act is somewhat of a mess as timelines are condensed and important events are rushed through in order to speed things along. But with a triumvirate of endearing performances and a truly fascinating tale likely to shock and surprise many viewers, the film not only offers meaningful context for Diana Prince’s origin, but also makes for a superb bookend to her first theatrical adventure.