Pro­fes­sor Marston and the Won­der Women

The comic-book hero­ine’s back­story gets a classy sheen.

The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY ANN HORNADAY ann.hornaday@wash­post.com

As the movie we need right now, “Pro­fes­sor Marston and the Won­der Women” could not be bet­ter timed. News re­ports might be awash in abuses of author­ity and griev­ous mis­con­duct within the movie in­dus­try, but here’s a story that not only cel­e­brates fe­male power and open-minded ide­al­ism, but also em­bod­ies those val­ues in its very warp and woof.

As its ti­tle sug­gests, the fact­based film tells the story of Wil­liam Moul­ton Marston (Luke Evans), the psy­chol­o­gist and in­ven­tor who, un­der the pen name Charles Moul­ton, cre­ated the comic book hero­ine Won­der Wo­man. The char­ac­ter’s ori­gin story was adapted by Patty Jenk­ins into a rous­ing ac­tion-ad­ven­ture this past sum­mer. Here, writer-di­rec­tor An­gela Robin­son delves into the real-life in­spi­ra­tions be­hind Marston’s cre­ation, which in­cluded: pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics; the psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries of Freud and Jung; a long-term ro­man­tic and do­mes­tic re­la­tion­ship between Marston, his psy­chol­o­gist wife, El­iz­a­beth (Re­becca Hall), and their stu­dent Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote); and the trio’s dis­cov­ery and en­joy­ment of the world of fetish ob­jects and role-play­ing.

If that all sounds ter­ri­bly edgy — maybe even a lit­tle dark — rest as­sured: Robin­son gives “Pro­fes­sor Marston” the classy, high­gloss sheen of a rich pe­riod piece, in­tro­duc­ing Wil­liam and El­iz­a­beth as they pur­sue their re­search at Har­vard, and fol­low­ing them through the 1940s, when Marston in­tro­duced his fem­i­nist archetype, kit­ted out with a form-fit­ting corset, lasso, metal wrist cuffs and di­a­dem. As the movie makes clear, th­ese sar­to­rial de­tails didn’t emerge from a leer­ing sense of kink or voyeurism. Rather, Marston was de­ter­mined to give boys a pos­i­tive role model of a fe­male hero they could re­spect and look up to. The at­trac­tion to ac­cou­trements of bondage and sub­mis­sion had its roots in his and El­iz­a­beth’s re­search, which in­cluded hu­man be­hav­ior, dis­sem­bling and ul­ti­mately in­vent­ing an early lie-de­tect­ing ma­chine.

The theme of hon­esty — liv­ing ac­cord­ing to one’s prin­ci­ples, em­brac­ing some­times taboo sex­ual de­sires, pur­su­ing love and friend­ship in good faith — per­vades “Pro­fes­sor Marston,” which is con­sis­tently ab­sorb­ing, sen­su­ous and lovely to look at, but most in­ter­est­ing when it fo­cuses on Olive and El­iz­a­beth. Hall de­liv­ers a prickly, tour-de-force per­for­mance as the bril­liant, dis­arm­ingly frank El­iz­a­beth, who de­spite her su­pe­rior in­tel­li­gence is rel­e­gated to sec­ond banana in her hus­band’s aca­demic ca­reer. In one of the film’s finest, most ju­di­ciously cal­i­brated scenes, she and Olive em­bark on a ten­ta­tive se­duc­tion, even­tu­ally invit­ing Wil­liam to join them with a sim­ple out­stretched hand and di­rect, know­ing look.

It’s a mo­ment, like so many in “Pro­fes­sor Marston,” that could eas­ily have been played for max­i­mum tit­il­la­tion or pruri­ent ap­peal. In­stead, Robin­son in­vests it with emo­tion, ma­tu­rity and, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, a tone of whole­some re­as­sur­ance. Oddly enough, Marston him­self isn’t nearly as vividly drawn as his fe­male com­pan­ions and col­lab­o­ra­tors; here, he comes across as lit­tle more than a well-mean­ing but rel­a­tively in­sipid man who had the good sense to sur­round him­self with far more in­ter­est­ing women. Still, he’s a sym­pa­thetic fig­ure in an en­gross­ing and beau­ti­fully told glimpse at the not-so-re­cent past that feels vi­tal, ground­break­ing and for­ward-lean­ing.

CLAIRE FOLGER/ANNAPURNA PIC­TURES

From left: Re­becca Hall, Luke Evans and Bella Heathcote as El­iz­a­beth and Wil­liam Marston and their stu­dent — and part­ner — Olive Byrne. Wri­ter­di­rec­tor An­gela Robin­son gives the back­story of the comic-book su­per­hero a high-gloss sheen.

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