As film biographies go, this one about the sex researcher is way above average. No doubt, it's because of a subject that's a built-in attention getter. But that, alone, doesn't explain the entertainment level it achieves within a historical context. It might have something to do with the man who plays the central figure. Liam Neeson has probably bought himself a ticket to the Academy Award ceremony next year with this portrayal, and we're counting him an almost assured nominee in that illustrious category.
In a non-linear fashion, the film traces the life of this obscure researcher who grew up under the stern regimentation of a preacher father (John Lithgow), finding his calling in the halls of academia. He becomes a zoologist out of Harvard and an expert on gall wasps. He spends 20 years collecting over a million of these insect creatures to discover that not one individual is identical to another--a lesson, he thinks, that can be applied to other creatures, perhaps more important ones.
He discovers the next step in his scientific evolution when, following his appointment to teach biology at Indiana University and falling in love he experiences his own sexuality as a newly married man. Ever the scientist, he pursues further understanding and finds the literature cupboard bare. He begins his study on male sexuality.
Assisting him is his relatively free-thinking wife and ex-student Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) who helps both in the bed and out. As the scientist devises the methodology to interview men in as great a sampling as his gall wasps study, he puts together a team of researchers (Peter Sarsgaard as Clyde Martin, Chris O'Donnell as Wardell Pomeroy and Timothy Hutton as Paul Gebhard). Kinsey trains them in the technique necessary to establish trust with a subject, and overcome the reticence of answering questions of a highly charged and emotional nature. Their subjects are assisted in breaking through barriers of shame, fear and guilt and furnish the team their sexual histories from which objective data can be compiled.
Kinsey published his "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" study in 1948 and changed the landscape of sex and its understanding forever. The effects include his becoming the subject of songs, cartoons, editorials and sermons, the instigator of free-thinking and sex liberation. His work laid the groundwork for the free-wheeling 60's (no pun intended) and brought down attacks on him for disrupting basic American values. Some have even said that the pressure of success and expectation, led him to experiment with homoxexuality and wife-swapping.
All of which is detailed with a solid dramatic framework by writer-director Bill Condon who does a great deal better in enlivening his subject than he managed to do in his leaden "Gods and Monsters." Perhaps he was more inspired. But his "Kinsey" is more than the glamorization of an interesting figure and a titilating subject, it raises appropriate questions about the separation between functional sex and emotional connection.
As the central figure, Neesan provides all the qualities of enthusiasm and magnetism needed to take us on such a journey of dedication and revolution and make it real, with vulnerability and self doubt along the way. He's a man of proven strength and presence. But, even more to the point, he is an actor who has grown in his craft. His rendering of an aging man is as well constructed as anything by Orson Welles, with the subtleties of a weakening body acutely observed. Without once resorting to the cliches of conveying age, his mastery of it is surprisingly convincing. Within the speech he delivers when his supporters have begun to abandon him, the physical clues of an impending breakdown is a classic of symptomatic development.
Today, there is no dearth of literature available on Alfred Kinsey and his breakthrough subject matter. Perhaps what we call our enlightened view of sex is directly attributable to his once-shocking work, and this film should make the case that his study helped rescue us from misconception and suppressed guilt -- and false connections between behavior and consequence.
You've heard of the "sexual revolution?" This is the guy who got it spinning.
The soundtrack album