It has all the trappings of a tasteful period piece: the true-story origins, the tweedy collegiate setting, the to-die-for costumes. But beneath all that, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” aims lớn shake you up, make you think and maybe even squirm a little.

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Make that a lot. This movie is sexy as hell, featuring several scenes of steamy three-ways and kinky S&M games. Luke Evans as the title character and Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as the two great loves of his life have ridiculous, combustible chemistry in & out of the bedroom (as well as the many other locations, public & private, where they dared to explore their shared love at a time when the rest of the world definitely wasn’t ready for it).

But “Professor Marston” also couldn’t be more relevant, and not just because it happens lớn be hitting theaters just four months after the release of the smash-hit blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” It’s a timely affirmation of feminine power—of the ways in which female wisdom & strength can charge hearts & minds, influence culture and inspire others khổng lồ be their most authentic selves. That was certainly true of this summer’s origin story, with its deeply moving lead performance from Gal Gadot, and it’s true again here in the origin story behind that origin story.

It takes a little while for the beloved superhero lớn come into full blossom, but her iconography is there, emerging steadily in illuminating, amusing ways. Unfortunately, though, writer/director Angela Robinson relies on a back-and-forth narrative structure—which has been used in so many biopics, it’s become a cliché—to tell the tale of how the comic book heroine & her alter ego, Diana Prince, came into being.

At the film’s start in the mid-1940s, Evans’ William Marston—who created Wonder Woman under the pseudonym Charles Moulton—is being interrogated about the character’s scandalous, sadomasochistic imagery by the head of the Child Study Association of America, the uptight Josette Frank (Connie Britton). Flashbacks to 1928, when he was a Harvard psychology professor working alongside his brilliant wife, Elizabeth (Hall), shed light on the source of this aesthetic.

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Where Marston was all charm và charisma và good looks, Elizabeth was sharp-witted and no-nonsense. The energy between the two crackles long before they begin sharing their lab—and, eventually, their bed—with Olive Byrne (Heathcote), a Radcliffe student who initially enters their lives as a research assistant. The couple can’t deny their joint attraction for the bright, beautiful blonde—and she, in turn, falls for them both, which she’s forced lớn admit in an exquisitely tense scene involving an early version of a lie detector. (The Marstons are crediting with coming up with the device.)

Their sexual frolicking leads to lớn dress-up and bondage when Marston brings his two loves khổng lồ the backroom of a costume cửa hàng for a secret rope-play course—and the corset, boots và ropes they employ might look a little familiar. (Cinematographer Bryce Fortner’s dramatic use of silhouette lighting during this scene adds lớn its warm, intimate power—and, yes, its wonder.)

Early on, though, we had a hint that this might be a shared turn-on when the couple spies on Olive paddling a sorority pledge during a hazing ritual—supposedly as research for their theories on dominance và submission. & conversely, we can tell from the way Heathcote’s big, blue eyes widen even more that Olive is enjoying being watched. It’s scenes like these that reveal how deftly Robinson builds suspense and how seamlessly she introduces the psychology that inspired Wonder Woman.

But then she makes the mistake of undermining that tension and insight by hopping back and forth in time, often at predicable moments. And “Professor Marston” can be painfully on-the-nose in making its points, such as the use of Nina Simone’s sultry “Feeling Good” during the first time the three explore their pent-up desires. I mean, of course they are. It’s obvious.

The performances from the three leads always keep the film compelling, though—especially from Hall & Heathcote, two actresses with extremely different screen presences who nonetheless challenge và complement each other perfectly. “Professor Marston” works well as an elucidating slice of pop-culture history you might not have known before, but it’s even more impactful as a timeless celebration of strong women supporting each other.


Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to lớn our Movie Love Questionnaire here.