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Review: ‘Professor Marston,’ With Kinks! Pleasures! Female Power!

Suffering Sappho, Batman, you’re such a square! That’s especially true when you consider the real origin of Wonder Woman, the warrior with the indestructible bracelets and slightly kinky magic lasso who burst into comics in 1941. As it happens, there was more kink to her story than suggested by that golden lasso, which she uses to force her captives to tell the truth and looks like something from a bondage emporium. “On Paradise Island where we play many binding games,” she says in an early comic while roping another woman, “this is considered the safest method of tying a girl’s arms!”

There are some exceedingly delectable questions posed in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” and a few frisky binding games on tap too. A sly and thoroughly charming Trojan horse of a movie, “Professor Marston” tells the story of the man who created Wonder Woman and the women who inspired him, both in and out of bed. The movie gleams and has all the smooth surfaces and persuasive detail of a typical period picture — the fedoras, the rides, the Katharine Hepburn trousers. All that luster, which too often in movies suggests polite manners and drowsily safe entertainment, proves to be a seductive, glossy way into something more satisfyingly complicated.

If nothing else, “Professor Marston” is another reminder that once upon a time people had sexual appetites and relationships as complex as those of today (or of 18th-century France), something else the movies don’t always like to admit. Occasionally, grandpa might have even visited a dusty, mysterious shop with sexy specialty items in front and something naughtier in back. Dr. William Moulton Marston (a winning Luke Evans) finds out just how special those items could be when he pops into a store where a man calling himself the G-string King (J.J. Feild) opens up a world of consensual power play and pleasure.

Photo

Rebecca Hall, Luke Evans as Dr. William Marston and Bella Heathcote in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.”

Credit
Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

At that point, life has already become interesting for Marston. The writer-director Angela Robinson lays out just how, well, knotty it all is with wit, sympathy and economy. Spanning decades, the story takes flight in 1928 with Marston teaching young lovelies at Radcliffe. “Are you normal?” he asks of a beaming, receptive audience that serves as an amusing stand-in for the viewer. Marston has answers to that and other questions, along with a theory he calls DISC — for dominance, inducement, submission and compliance — which sounds terribly complex and slightly ridiculous. (“D, I, S and C,” the real Marston wrote, “represent nodal points in the integrative emotion series.”)

Ms. Robinson borrows Marston’s theory, using it as a clever if somewhat schematic framing device as she spins her story. There are moments of domination, psychological as well as physical. There are also interludes of inducement, submission and compliance mixed in with a sweet, soft-focus romance that initially involves Marston and his wife, a frustrated academic, Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall, tart, brisk, essential), and soon includes a third, Olive Byrne (a very good Bella Heathcote). A student, Olive cracks open the Marstons’ marriage, but instead of destroying it helps it grow into a shared, liberating adventure that settles into something cozily domestic.

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