The true story of Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), the American biologist whose 1948 study of human sexuality caused a sensation and struck a major blow against sexual repression. Bill Condon, who made Gods And Monsters, writes and directs. Laura Linney received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Insects were Alfred Kinsey’s (Liam Neeson) great passion in life. Specifically, he was fascinated by the gall wasp. As a young biology professor working at Indiana University, he collected a million of them as part of a fifteen-year study. When asked by his student and future wife Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) what intrigued him about them, he explained that it was the amazing individuality of the creatures. Despite their minute size and the simplicity of their existence, no two specimens were exactly alike. To Kinsey, they represented the endless diversity of life. That same curiosity about nature would also inspire Kinsey’s next project, which probed into a very different aspect of biology.
In America in the mid-thirties, human sexuality was a topic that was rarely discussed, even on a university campus. At that time, intercourse was an awkward and shameful act which married couples performed but didn’t talk about. As a biologist and an educator, Kinsey was occasionally cornered by a student with a question about sex. When he tried to provide an answer, he was frustrated by his own ignorance and by the lack of reliable information available. The few manuals that were prepared to discuss the subject gave advice so erroneous, it was laughable. Yes, masturbation was seriously believed to cause blindness – by doctors! The man who had so far devoted his adult life to insects decided that his efforts might be better spent on correcting this unhealthy situation.
In 1938, Kinsey began researching male sexuality for the first of two proposed books, the second of which would look at women. He put together a detailed questionnaire and set out to interview a representative cross-section of American men. He started work on his own, talking to students at his university. Over the next ten years, as the project grew and gained momentum, he obtained funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and formed a research team to spread the workload. Kinsey and his assistants would eventually interview 18,000 subjects, from all walks of life. Their sexualities would turn out to be every bit as diverse as those tiny gall wasps.
“Sexual Behavior In The Human Male” was published in 1948. It was acclaimed by the scientific community as an incredible breakthrough but its influence extended far beyond academia. The Kinsey Report, as it became known, was a runaway bestseller and it created a cultural phenomenon – the movie includes some of the headlines, cartoons and song lyrics which referred to it. Anyone who was anyone owned a copy of the Kinsey Report. Undoubtedly, for many readers, the appeal was titillation rather than scientific curiosity. Nevertheless, Kinsey’s research was reaching a wide audience and it was doing its job: spreading knowledge and shattering myths.
Of course not everyone was happy. The religious-minded folk who worked the hardest to keep sex in the closet were outraged. They still are. More than fifty years later, this film has been condemned by Christian groups in America for glorifying a man they accuse of opening the floodgates to sin and depravity. That’s giving Kinsey a bit more credit than he deserves. The sexual revolution he’s blamed for didn’t actually happen for another twenty years and had more to do with the rock’n’roll culture of the baby boom generation than any survey. Still, Kinsey did unquestionably succeed in getting sex out in the open, banishing ignorance and opening people’s eyes to the reality of human life. Laws were changed in its wake: sodomy was decriminalised for the first time in many states.
Writer / director Bill Condon, who made Gods And Monsters, obviously feels as passionately about what Kinsey accomplished as the man himself felt about his work. This film never pretends to be objective. If you want to give two points of view a fair and equal hearing, you don’t have one represented by Liam Neeson and the other by Tim Curry. Condon’s made a fiercely partisan movie that champions its subject, celebrates his work and pokes fun at his detractors. This may not please everyone but it certainly gives Kinsey a conviction and an energy absent from most biopics. Perhaps such a strong point of view is the key to making this frequently dull genre come to life. The Aviator, Frida, The People Vs Larry Flynt and Private Parts also portrayed their subjects’ lives as crusades for personal freedom and it wasn’t to their detriment.
Condon does sometimes push the buttons a little too hard. John Lithgow goes over the top as Kinsey’s ultra-conservative father and the rival professor played by Tim Curry is too much of a buffoon. The genuine, scientific criticisms of Kinsey’s results are brought up but quickly glossed over. There’s an unconvincing scene near the end where Kinsey meets a woman who’s been profoundly affected by his work. This should be touching but, like Liam Neeson’s “I could have done more” speech in Schindler’s List, it feels artificial and designed to end the film on a high note. One more gripe: the unconventional homelife of the Kinsey family is dealt with all too briefly and played for easy, Meet The Fockers-style laughs. I’d like to have known more about their children. How did they cope socially, having had such a radically different upbringing from their peers?
Liam Neeson is sensationally good as Kinsey. The Irish actor demonstrates again the blend of acting skill and movie star charisma that has enabled him to convincingly play real-life figures as different as Oskar Schindler, Rob Roy and Michael Collins (next up is Abraham Lincoln in a Spielberg biopic). What these people have in common, a trait shared by Alfred Kinsey, is a powerful drive to accomplish something important. Neeson plays driven men as well as anyone.
Laura Linney is equally good. Clara is no mere background figure, like the female costars in those other Neeson films. She’s a very complex character in her own right, a woman open to her husband’s ideas but firmly of the opinion that there’s more to sex than biology. She has two terrific scenes midway through the film – one where she reacts furiously to a confession from her husband and another where she gets her own back in a most satisfying way. Peter Sarsgaard is also noteworthy, playing a bisexual research assistant who offers his boss some practical insights into male homosexuality. Sarsgaard keeps cropping up in good films, doing good work – last year he was in Shattered Glass and Garden State – and it seems like only a matter of time before he becomes a major star.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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