Tuesday 17 October 2017
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Professor Marston and
the Wonder Women
2017 USA Directed by Angela Robinson
London Film Festival Sunday 15th October
Okay, so this was my last film of this year’s London Film Festival and I couldn’t have picked a better one. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a truly joyful experience and, also, the timing couldn’t have been better for the producers in terms of following this year's big hit Wonder Woman (reviewed by me here). This is the story of the man who created that iconic character (under the pseudonym Charles Moulton), psychologist Professor William Moulton Marston and the two women in his (and each others) life... his wife, psychologist Elisabeth Marston and their live in lover Olive Byrne.
The film is damn near perfect too.
I knew the movie would have to tackle the Frederic Wertham stuff and it kinda does, in a way... or at least the growing sentiment in America that the relatively new comic book phenomenon was perverted, corrupting and harmful to the children of America (and presumably to the GI’s too since comics were popular with them also). Wertham would be the mascot boy for the terrifying anti-comics crusade to come and so he’s not specifically mentioned here as this movie ends roughly around the time of Marston’s death, which was just a few years early for the full horror of Wertham’s pseudo-psycho babble to take a grip on minds across the country.
However, the growing scare of sensationalist comic books is a perfect place to look back from and writer/director Angela Robinson kicks off the movie with kids collecting unwanted comics in carts as the credits play out before we see Marston looking on at everyone burning comic books and we see an issue of one of the early comics to feature Wonder Woman, perhaps Marston’s most enduring invention, burning up with the rest of them on a bonfire of four colour funnies. We then join Marston defending Wonder Woman to Josette Frank, who was appointed to help National Comics Publications, kinda, self certify before the real storm came later (soon after and decades before they made it official, National Comics branded themselves with the initials of their popular Batman title, Detective Comics, as the now more familiar DC). It’s from this scene, with Frank (played by Connie Britton) asking the hard questions and Marston remembering the relevant parts of this life, that we glimpse the majority of the film in flashback, with constant stops back to the early 1940s when this sequence is happening.
So we have Professor Marston played by Luke Evans and Elisabeth played by Rebecca Hall (who I loved so much in The Awakening - reviewed here - that I thought she should have been heading up a franchise with the character from that movie) giving lectures in Marston’s new psychological theory DISC (which stands for Dominance, Influence, Submission, and Compliance) and taking on a new assistant whom they both, as it happens, want to sleep with... called Olive, played by Bella Heathcote. And we see their story through their personal lens as they build a loving relationship under the same household (mostly) and have various children and struggle with various problems of their specific lifestyle choices versus what is socially acceptable in the 1920s and beyond.
In addition to seeing them discover each other we also see them inventing and testing the lie detector (finally realising the missing ingredient of the ‘false positives’ they are getting by using their possible future (at this stage) relationship in conjunction with it to finally get the correct results. We also see the discovery of illegal pornography as a defining moment in their life and, specifically, Marston’s accidental introduction to the ‘underground’ S&M scene (we all call it BDSM nowadays) including an introduction to bondage via a demonstration the Professor gets set up in the back room of a shop which specialises in... ‘fantasy dress’, shall we say. The bondage demonstrated, first on a model and then on Olive in the showroom is not unlike what we would know a little better these days as ‘shibari’ rope bondage (although the term itself was not, I think, in more common practice, even in Japan, until the 1950s) and this kickstarts another important aspect of Marston and the gals ‘relationship identity’. This is something they already touched upon earlier in the film in a spanking scene in a College ritual and the photographs that Marston later buys to pique the girls’ interest are, he insists, visual representations of his DISC ideas rendered in just four pictures. This later helps give him the idea to inject the same theories into his Wonder Woman character, who would make her first appearance in an issue of All Star Comics before headlining her run in Sensation Comics.
Of course, much is made of the lie detector, the bondage rope and the costume that Olive wears at one point as the early ideas that sparked certain aspects of Wonder Woman (who gets rid of the false words of her enemies with her magic rope of truth and who is constantly getting tied up in the strip during that period). It’s a great story and it’s all laid out from A-Z with Marston finally selling his idea of Suprema The Wonder Woman and writing the stories himself after he and Elisabeth are both fired from their college jobs due to the nature of their relationship with Olive and their various children. This includes a brilliant turn from Oliver Platt as legendary comics publisher M. C. Gaines which is pretty good, with him dumping the name Suprema and going with just the character name which is more familiar to her fans today... Wonder Woman.
And this movie sparkles so much.
The style is quite leisurely with lots of either static or slow moving camera shots which are held for quite reasonable lengths of time to let the performances of the three brilliant leads shine through. The writing is unbelievably witty and sparkly too and it’s a bit like a quick fire 1930s romantic comedy in the way the actors deliver this immensely intelligent dialogue, which juxtaposes nicely with the slower visual style without it clashing - the two things just seem to complement each other perfectly and the movie sings along very quickly. It’s also very funny with some great one liners such as Elisabeth saying something along the lines of “You can’t keep using science to justify the whims of your cock.” That’s probably not the exact quote but it’s not far off and, like many of the humour beats that hit the mark throughout this movie, the audience at the screening I attended were highly appreciative.
The film also has some nice things going on in those shot compositions too. The sorority ritual scene where Marston and his wife get hot and bothered watching Olive spank another student is partially shot from in front of a set of bannisters which partly obscures their features while allowing you to easily glimpse the mood being put through in their performance and it’s a really nice moment. Another really great thing is the deep focus photography used on some of the shots of the rope where Elisabeth ties up Olive in the shop and the texture of the rope is sharp in places where everything else in the shot is blurred out like an old Hollywood, ‘vaseline on the lens’ shot. It’s stuff like this which really gets into your eyeballs, coupled with the dazzling script and the superb acting from all the leads here.
I was a bit worried that the movie wouldn’t be able to legally use images of Wonder Woman due to rights issues but there seems to be no such problems here and there’s even a montage sequence (or two) with various comic panels from the strip set to the music of the famous jazz standard Big Noise from Winnetka, which I suspect might have been inspired by a similar musically charged montage with the same piece from the film Comic Book Confidential. Wherever that idea came from, it works just fine here and this is not to undercut the brilliance of Tom Howe’s wonderful score for the movie either (which I shall be picking up on CD as soon as I can get my hands on it after the release date).
The film ends with the time honoured, various facts about ‘what happened next’ in the lives of the three central protagonists and then the credits roll with photos of the real life William, Elisabeth and Olive... which really hits home, actually, just how glamourous the movie versions of the characters are in comparison to the people that inspired it. Although that’s a discussion for a different time, methinks.
All in all, Professor Marston And The Wonder Women is easily one of the best movies of 2017 and I can’t wait to see this one again when it gets a November release in the UK (and also buy the Blu Ray when it comes out). Don’t be on the fence about this one if you like cinema and also like to see a good, romantic yarn with humour, sadness and poignancy in spades. As far as writer/director Angela Robinson goes with this movie, I shall quote another movie from this year taking everyone’s famous amazonian superhero as it’s subject matter and just say... “You should be very proud.”