Kinsey

November, 2004, Drama

The timing of this movie from writer/director Bill Condon, (Gods and Monsters) couldn't be more perfect; less than a fortnight after George W's re-election comes this surprisingly thoughtful examination of the life and work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, human sexuality's first scientific explorer. In publishing his initial findings on the subject in 1948, the former zoology professor from Indiana University fundamentally changed the way we understand our sexual selves and by vividly re-creating the cultural/religious environment in which Dr. Kinsey did his research, Condon's film allows audiences to better grasp the implications of America's current political focus on "moral values". In doing so, Condon has given us a far better, (and more subversive) example of good politically oriented filmmaking than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, epitomizing the old Irish warning about being careful what you wish for because you might just get it…

Using interview techniques employed by Kinsey in his original study, Condon's literate screenplay crisply traces the early life of his subject, enabling audiences to understand how the oldest son of a cold and deeply repressed Midwestern professor could blossom into an intellectually exciting but socially awkward academic, whose personal sexual discoveries were funneled into a passion for research and an often lonely crusade for better understanding and greater acceptance of human sexual behavior as it actually is rather then the way society might like it to be.

Kinsey's story is simplicity itself; fleeing an oppressive home environment, he studied biology and upon graduation joined the faculty of Indiana University as a zoologist. Fueled by detailed observations on species individuation gleaned from his decades of work studying insects and the early sexual experience in his marriage to former student Clara McMillan, (Laura Linney) Kinsey began his life's work, morphing from obscure professor to notorious media figure and in the process, changing the way in which we understand our sexual identities. 

Condon presents Kinsey as a crusader for verifiable facts on a subject then known primarily for superstition, secrecy and mind-numbing ignorance, all shrouded by the strictures of moral sanction. In daring to speak and write openly about issues long considered inappropriate for public discussion, Condon makes a persuasive case that Kinsey paved the way for healthier attitudes about the human condition and made it possible for others to continue and expand his research. It's astounding to hear once again from the mouths of this uniformly excellent cast some of the old-wives’ tales about such subjects as masturbation, the location of female sexual arousal and the extent of homosexual orientation in the human family, coming as they do from supposedly educated members of society in an era recent enough to be personally remembered by many in the audience. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay this film is to note how ubiquitous those old shibboleths were and how decisively they have been supplanted by the truths Kinsey uncovered.

Condon's camera moves fluidly, bridging the significant points in Kinsey's life with clarity and an appealing degree of reverent candor about a person who could be tactless in his honesty and often unreasonable in his high-minded demands on family, constituents and funders alike. While there are a few "eureka" moments, (in which key developments in Kinsey's thought appear in scenes more theatrical than historical) Condon's film entertains as it enlightens, converting an often-misunderstood figure in his own time to a belated hero in ours.    

Kinsey's unwillingness to define any of his subjects' activities as deviant may offend those viewers who'll take this consistent refusal to examine the moral dimensions of human sexuality as an indication that he condoned patently irresponsible, even criminal, behavior. Yet Condon's treatment of his subject is as stubbornly consistent as the man himself; this pioneering researcher refused to either condone or condemn, focused as he was on fact gathering, not its moral/ethical implications.  But by concentrating solely on the value inherent in a scientifically rigorous examination of what we do do, (while ignoring the question of what we ought not do) Condon stacks the cinematic deck, presenting Kinsey for scientific canonization. Under the director's handling, Neeson's Kinsey becomes something of a father-confessor, releasing his subjects, in the act of relating their experiences to him, from the guilt and anguish caused by their previously unspoken deeds. But no distinctions are made in any of this; every act is presented in sympathetically neutral terms, justified by the needs of information gathering.  The result is a movie that unswervingly supports the notion that sexual truth will set us free, even as it uneasily vacillates about the collateral damage that can occur as a result. Condon glides rather too glibly over the painful experiences his subject's own sexual decisions had on his marriage and those of certain colleagues on his research team.

 Today sexual candor isn't just used to enlighten and enrich; it's increasingly used to sell. If simple replication justifies what's considered acceptable, has Condon uncovered the reason our culture has converted much of human sexuality into a commodity in the half century since the publication of Kinsey's initial work? Kinsey doesn't presume to answer that question, but in the film's closing scene, the trail-blazing researcher is asked why he never mentions the role of love in his studies and findings. The professor replies that while love may be important, it's irrelevant to what he's doing because it can't be the subject of scientific quantification. Fair enough--but if the words "fidelity", "commitment" or "responsibility" had been substituted for "love" in the script, would that same answer have been acceptable? In presenting his subject for cinematic sainthood, Condon unwittingly makes Kinsey complicit in the sexual climate that exploded during the pre-AIDS decade following his death.    

As a leading man, Liam Neeson has often suffered from being cast in roles that seemed bigger than he was capable of fulfilling; he was unconvincing as the wheeling & dealing German businessman saving his Jewish countrymen in Schindler's List, pedantic as an Irish patriot/terrorist in Michael Collins, too long-suffering a protagonist as Jean Valjean in filmed version of Hugo's epic Les Miserables. But here, Neeson employs his always intimidating physical presence in support of a vulnerable social awkwardness that comes coupled with a passion for honest inquiry, providing his Kinsey with an intriguing mixture of academic pedantry in the classroom and touching sensitivity to those who became his human lab rats. 

Laura Linney, flat-out America's most undervalued actress, (You Can Count On Me, Mystic River, et al) shines in a role that would have buried others; with eyes full of twinkling vivacity and subtly modulated emotions flickering across her expressive face, Linney packs extraordinary nuance into her role as wife, sexual explorer and victim to her husband's often obsessive preoccupations. There isn't a woman working in American movies today who comes close to matching Linney's ability to combine beauty and intelligence in a performance; she deserves more roles worthy of her extraordinary abilities. 

As Clyde Martin, Kinsey's principal acolyte, Peter Sarsgaard, (Garden State, Shattered Glass) delivers another of his mysteriously understated performances as an early disciple of Kinsey whose sexual orientation brought him into the beds of both Kinsey and his wife, while John Lithgow's simmering rage as Kinsey's father is nicely balanced by the desperate sweetness of Lynn Redgrave's matronly confessions as one of Kinsey's grateful subjects. 

Cautions about the movie's unstated endorsement of value-free sexuality aside, this is an adult film in the very best meaning of that word; intelligent, thought provoking and certain to cause lots of interesting discussion. In a year notable for only a few fine films, this one stands comparison with the best.      

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