Friday, October 13, 2017

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: A few notes shy of wonderful

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for strong sexual content, profanity, brief nudity and fleeting graphic images

By Derrick Bang

Although persuasively acted, sensitively directed and reasonably faithful to established fact, writer/director Angela Robinson’s take on comic book heroine Wonder Woman most frequently feels like a giddy endorsement of unconventional sexual lifestyles.

Flush with the "forbidden" delights of their blossoming three-way relationship, Elizabeth
Marston (Rebecca Hall, left), her husband William (Luke Evans) and their "plus one"
Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) unwisely fail to consider how their behavior will affect
fellow Tufts University faculty and students.
Goodness knows, the actual saga tops the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction List, as recently revealed via comprehensive feature stories from National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine and The New Yorker, along with — most particularly — Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s fascinating 2015 book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Robinson had no shortage of research material, from which to draw.

But while the world’s best-known female superhero has been made the selling point of this unusual big-screen biography — the character’s status having accelerated exponentially, thanks to summer’s smash-hit film — Wonder Woman is mostly incidental to the story being told here. Robinson had other things on her mind.

The saga begins in 1925, as Harvard-trained psychologist William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) begins teaching a large assemblage of young women at Tufts University. His wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is a ubiquitous presence, forever perched in the classroom window seat. An equally accredited psychologist and lawyer, she sharply observes — and records, via jotted notes — how the students respond, individually and as a group, during her husband’s lectures.

William and Elizabeth are a prickly but passionately devoted team, in and out of the classroom. He’s smooth, intelligent and seductively persuasive: a silver-tongued orator who’d have made a terrific snake-oil salesman. She’s bluntly combative, judgmental, sharp-tongued and even more ferociously smart. They constantly challenge each other, even as they love and collaborate in numerous endeavors ... not the least of which is the development of a functional lie-detector device.

In class, William’s gaze is drawn to the radiantly gorgeous Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), a senior who becomes his research assistant ... which is to say, she becomes their research assistant. William ostensibly insists that Olive is the perfect subject with whom to explore the active/passive aspects of a “DISC theory” — dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — that he believes governs all human behavior.

In reality, he just wants to bed Olive. Which Elizabeth realizes full well, and about which she’s ambivalent. At initial blush, William’s desire seems a non-starter; the quietly shy Olive, a seemingly conservative sorority girl, is engaged to a Nice Young Man.

Ah, but Olive’s still waters go deep indeed, as becomes clear when her admiration for Elizabeth proves to have less to do with academics, and more with breath-catching, heart-stopping ardor. Which she helplessly reveals, during a session with the Marstons’ newly perfected lie detector (one of Robinson’s best-composed and amusing sequences).

As an equal celestial body orbiting Olive’s sexual interest, Elizabeth’s ambivalence ... vanishes.

Olive’s behavior seems to emerge out of the blue, but perhaps not. Robinson coyly suggests that unorthodox behavior may have been in her genes, given that the young woman is the daughter of radical feminist Ethel Byrne, who in turn is the younger sister of birth control activist Margaret Sanger. (Those two women quite infamously opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States.)

What follows is the first of several playfully kinky erotic montages, as this giddily enraptured threesome indulges in late-night sexual role-playing, courtesy of the university’s theater costume shop. It’s sexy and touchingly intimate: alluringly lensed in a candlelight style by cinematographer Bryce Fortner, and seductively choreographed by Robinson and editor Jeffrey M. Werner.

At the risk of succumbing to gender stereotypes, the sequence’s tender warmth seems the result of a woman’s touch; I can’t help feeling that a male director would have made it lurid and more aggressively exploitative.

The subsequent polygynous relationship affords William all sorts of data points for his DISC theories. It also gets him fired, as the trio’s discretion is somewhat wanting. Relocating to a quiet suburban neighborhood, with Olive assuming a “secret identity” as Elizabeth’s widowed sister, William struggles for employment.

Years pass. Now in the early 1940s, and thanks to a fortuitous visit to a clandestine S&M emporium, William begins to toy with the notion of a female counterpart to comic book sensation Superman: a warrior adapted from Greek myth, who exemplifies Williams’ longstanding belief in feminine superiority.

And whose adventures inevitably seem to involve dollops of bondage and suggestive sadomasochism. (If this flies in the face of your notions regarding Wonder Woman, you’ve not seen her earliest four-color escapades.)

Both actresses are sublime. At first blush, Hall’s Elizabeth is hilariously brittle; we practically feel her sharp edges. She swears uninhibitedly, seeming to delight in the impact of F-bombs in the refined university environment. Hall taunts, teases and tantalizes with equal aplomb, all of which is part of a hardened shell that conceals her innermost feelings ... until it doesn’t.

At which point, Hall reveals a wholly unexpected level of vulnerability: the emotional insecurity of a woman who has endured too much professional and personal disappointment — as a woman — and fears opening herself to more.

Heathcote’s Olive, on the other hand, starts out closeted: timid, fragile and easily overwhelmed by — and no match for — Elizabeth’s ruthless candor. The delicacy of Heathcote’s performance comes each time we watch Olive struggle against social decorum to reveal her true feelings.

The critical moment, when another round of costume play proves the unexpected a-ha moment for William’s gestating super heroine, is a thing of breathtaking delicacy: a scene that easily could have been ruined by too strong a directorial touch, or a single line given the wrong reading. But Hall and Heathcote are transcendent — and that is the word — and Robinson displays just the right touch.

Although William plays an equal role in these sexual hijinks, he comes fully formed; we don’t get any sense of character evolution, as with the two women. More often than not, Evans gives the guy a self-satisfied, cat-who-ate-the-canary smirk. Not a leer, to be fair; there’s no sense that he’s exploiting these two women, and the actor is never less than earnest, when William explains and/or justifies his psychological theories.

And yet we can’t help questioning the trio’s recklessness, even selfishness, particularly when children — ultimately four of them — enter the picture. Robinson makes it all seem too easy, as if this unconventional relationship were the most natural thing in the world; she glosses over what must have been decades of furtive anxiety and concealment from what these three knew would be denunciation and disgust from the general public.

Only once does Robinson pay token lip service to the results of such exposure, and it’s wholly insufficient.

Her film also is bookended by an extremely clumsy framing device: William’s cross-examination, a few years after Wonder Woman’s comic book debut, by children’s literature expert and Child Study Association head Josette Frank (Connie Britton). She wields the authority to shut down comic book publisher M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt), because of WW’s scandalous behavior and portrayal.

This inquisition prompts the flashback memories that become the bulk of the film, but the process itself is pointless, particularly given the manner in which it concludes. It’s one of the few times that Robinson’s narrative presence feels contrived, and (very likely) historically inaccurate.

Overall, the 108-minute film also is too talky, and begins to feel tiresome by the third act. Robinson’s relentless focus on sexual dynamics comes at the expense of William’s much too superficially depicted introduction to Gaines, and their eventual alliance. On top of which, the story’s conclusion feels quite rushed and sketchy, as if Robinson suddenly were in a hurry to be done with it.

While Robinson clearly has the sensibilities to properly direct Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, she should have reassigned the scripting chores to somebody who could have delivered a more balanced treatment of these events. They certainly deserve it.

(Oh, and a point of accuracy: A final text block claiming that Wonder Woman was “stripped of all her powers,” immediately following William Marston’s death, is completely inaccurate. The character lost her powers only briefly in the late 1960s, when a writer made the ill-advised decision to re-cast the character as a mortal clone of Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, of the then-popular TV series The Avengers. The decision was rescinded quickly, in the wake of Wonder Woman’s appearance on the cover of a 1971 issue of Ms. magazine.)

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