Movie Review: Professor Marston & the Wonder Women

With all the excitement and buzz around Wonder Woman after the recent movie success, it seems natural to explore the origins. Professor Marston & the Wonder Women takes on the “true story” of Wonder Woman’s creator Dr. William Marston – Harvard psychologist and inventor of the lie detector. His unconventional love life is the stuff movies are made of.

Marston (played by Luke Evans) was a psychologist, inventor, teacher, writer, and unrepentant feminist. He adored his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) – also a psychologist – and his lover, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). The three of them lived together, raising children in a strong family unit. His appreciation of these dynamic women was the root of his greatest creation, Wonder Woman.

With a great premise and top-notch cast, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women seemingly has all the pieces in place for a great flick. Until “based on a true story” bumps up against “the actual true story.”

Having previously read Jill Lepore’s book Secret History of Wonder Woman, based on the writing and personal papers/letters of the Marston and Byrne families, I felt I had a good handle on the extraordinary lives of these three visionaries. And almost immediately, I began to see how differently this story was framed.

In real life correspondence, Olive and Elizabeth insisted they were like sisters – but never lovers. (After Marston’s death from lung cancer, the two women lived together another 38 years, until Olive’s death). The movie narrative, however, is heavily built around the two women’s sexual attraction and them reluctantly falling in love.

This changes so much of the true emotional story; in many ways, Marston is more voyeur than a lover and much more time is spent on Elizabeth and Olive, rather than Olive and William. Now, if you haven’t read Lepore’s book or heard Christie Marston (Elizabeth and William’s granddaughter) speak, you will enjoy the emotional and passionate love story that unfolds. The movie is sexy and sensual and by the time the three dip into the world of costumes, bondage, and games, the lush romance is riveting to watch.

But it isn’t the true story, it’s artistic interpretation and as far as they go, quite a big one. The filmmaker, Angela Robinson, has said in interviews she didn’t speak to family members and I believe this is a big mistake. As a result, the names are used and rough facts, but ultimately, this isn’t a representation of actual people. In fact, Christie Marston has denounced the movie as pure fiction.

The timeline also mixes thing up; several key intense emotional scenes are manufactured (including Marston watching children burn Wonder Woman comics and being questioned by Connie Britton’s character about the perversion of Wonder Woman). Interestingly, even not knowing the true story or timeline, the screenplay falters a bit as there is a lack of cohesion as to why things are happening. It also skips over a lot of Marston’s creative process of how he was sparked to create Wonder Woman, which is why most people will be interested in the film.

It’s a shame because the Marstons and Byrne were fascinating individuals with a compelling story – even without the creation of Wonder Woman. The acting is excellent all around, from Evans, Hall, and Heathcote, with supporting turns from Oliver Platt and Connie Britton.

But in the end, “based on a true story” should mean something. If you are not taking into account more than a few superfluous facts, then just call it pure fiction.
Release date: October 13, 2017 (USA)
Director: Angela Robinson
Distributed by: Annapurna Pictures
Screenplay: Angela Robinson
Producers: Andrea Sperling, Amy Redford