Starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard
Human beings are just bigger, slightly more complicated gall wasps. -- Alfred KinseyKinsey the movie does what Kinsey the scientist would never have done: It not only documents the subject's behaviour, but goes on to place that behaviour in a distinctly emotional and even moral context. A good thing too, because the result is a mature biopic as entertaining as it is timely. More to the point, the film is itself evidence that humans differ from gall wasps in at least one crucial respect: Unlike those tiny insects, we pack a sting.
Certainly, Alfred Kinsey did. In 1948, his landmark publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male took a major bite out of American hypocrisy, proving that such alleged taboos as masturbation and premarital sex and, gasp, even homosexuality, were honoured a whole lot more in the breach than the observance. At the time, the book was acclaimed and widely discussed. But a mere five years after that, with the release of the companion study on female sexuality, the closed minds of the McCarthy era had changed the climate completely. Then, as fear reigned and fundamentalist "values" held sway, the messenger got discredited right along with the message. Kinsey the prophet had become Kinsey the pariah. Cut to the present, and the movie's own sting lies in its strongly implied conclusion: One sexual revolution, an entire feminist movement, and 50 eventful years later, everything is different and nothing has changed. Today's evangelical mob would have Kinsey's head.
Straight from the first frames, writer-director Bill Condon (whose brief résumé includes Gods and Monsters) adroitly tackles the problem that all biopics about accomplished people invariably bump up against: How to marry the life to the work, dramatizing one without slighting the other? Condon starts in black-and-white, with Kinsey the adult (Liam Neeson) instructing a researcher on how to administer his sex questionnaire with empirical precision and a "non-judgmental attitude." Then there's a flashback in colour to Kinsey the boy, listening as his fanatically judgmental father preaches in a Methodist pulpit against the latest sinful threat to the social fabric -- the newly invented zipper and the "speedy access" it provides. Voilà. Cause is neatly linked to effect, the life to the work.
Everything that follows is a variation on that opening sequence. We pick up Kinsey, having left behind his "hypocrite" daddy, toiling as a zoology prof in the lecture halls of Indiana University. A likable nerd, he's consumed by the study of gall wasps, collecting thousands of specimens and marvelling at their individuality. Hey, what better rehearsal for his main show? To provide the practical experience, enter his wife-to-be Clara (Laura Linney), who rejects his initial marriage proposal ("Frankly, I find you a little too churchy") but eventually comes around. Virgins both, they fumble and bumble on their wedding night, yet soon master the art to the squealing tune of three bouncing babies.
From there, it's nearly two decades before the zoologist turns his attention to his own species. The spark is a "marriage course" he's assigned to teach, a gig that prompts the realization that, between the sheets, "We know so little about what people really do." Ever the scientist, Kinsey sets out to remedy that vacuum, gathering another mass of specimens and using his questionnaire as the sharp pin. His methodology, a source of continuing debate, isn't really discussed here. Understandably, Condon prefers the more dramatic material offered by Kinsey's personal field trips -- for example, trawling gay bars to interview subjects, then retiring to a hotel room with his trusty assistant Clyde (Peter Sarsgaard). There, after discussing his famous zero-to-six scale of sexual orientation, the two hop into bed and eagerly establish themselves as red-blooded threes.
After he confesses -- or, more accurately, documents -- this fling to his wife, she protests, "Stop using science to justify what you've done." Actually, the script uses Clara to voice the principal objections to Kinsey's work. These range from the narrow moral complaint (to study every sexual behaviour is to encourage every sexual behaviour) to the broader sociological criticism (to view human sexual practice through a strictly empirical lens, largely filtering out social conditioning and emotional engagement, is to completely ignore what elevates us beyond the gall wasp). However, since Clara becomes a convert to the science, and, with hubby's approval, even has her own romp with Clyde, the film ends up in the odd position of giving ammunition to the very critics it means to disarm. In the act of studying sex, these behaviourists do indeed get all sexed up themselves.
I'm not sure that such ambiguity is deliberate. If not, it's a flaw in an otherwise bold picture whose overriding intent is to portray Kinsey as a brave and pioneering rationalist. That's where Neeson comes in. On screen almost continually for two-hours plus, with his cropped hair in a permanent state of erection, he delivers a performance that plays like its own irresistible force. This Kinsey is very much his father's son, a true believer (albeit a kindlier genus) who places all his faith in the gospel of science and all his hope in the tree of knowledge. Ignorance, for him, is the greatest sin.
Neeson has the guy working maniacally hard at everything, including his stilted sense of humour. But he softens Kinsey by locating in him precisely the quality that goes missing in those clinical books: love. And what he loves is nature, including human sexual nature, in all its bounty, complexity and individuality. His need to understand it is as strong as any biological urge, and his attempt to quantify it as elusive as any philosopher's stone.
Still, his work remains hugely significant, not just in its revelations but in its willingness to pull back the curtain of silence. Kinsey was heroic for taking the secrecy out of sex, while leaving in the mystery. His enemies, the zealots of yesterday and today and tomorrow, would do just the reverse.