KINSEY opens with the face of Peter Sarsgaard in close-up looking directly into the camera and asking questions of a sexual nature. An offscreen voice stops him when he uses a euphemism for a sexual act. No, says the voice that we will shortly learn is Kinseys, it wont work unless you are completely straightforward, clinical, in fact. And that is exactly what writer/director Bill Condon is with his biopic of the pioneering sex researcher who created a maelstrom of controversy when he held up to an astonished, and repressed, United States, the true state of the nations sexuality back in the late 1940s. Unlike Kinsey, though, Condon has done more than reduce his subject to statistics, facts, and figures. He has added the one thing Kinsey would never have allowed of his researchers, he passes judgment. What he emphasizes to excellent effect is that what made Kinsey brilliant had within it the seeds of his undoing personally and professionally. A biology professor and compulsive taxonomist specializing in gall wasps before turning to human sexual behavior, he attempted to separate sexuality from emotion with fallout that someone less focused would have foreseen in a New York minute. While this Kinsey is a difficult, man, he is one worthy not just of respect, but also of compassion. There is something endearing in the way he is presented, investigating that most intimate of human expressions, while at the same time evincing an almost total lack of social skills.
Liam Neeson gives a towering performance in the title role. There is a flinty obsession and a melting tenderness. Condon carefully lays the foundation for that personality with sparing, but incisive flashbacks to his repressed childhood and a preacher father who considered zippers a tool of Satan because they increased the speed with one could remove ones pants and get into mischief. A difficult wedding night and, much later, a student couples questions about their sexual dysfunction inspire Kinsey to teach a marriage class, open only to faculty, graduate students, and married undergraduates. Beyond a few explicit photos, he quickly found that there was no information about what was average, sexually speaking, and so initiated a series of questionnaires for his students that became the basis of the thousands upon thousands of case histories that went into his ground-breaking books. It also opened the door for his own sexual exploration with one of his assistants, as well as that of his wife (an intelligently perky Laura Linney, who gained 20 pounds for the role), and his staff. Though the rumored orgies with his staff are not depicted, a scene of a family dinner where the teenage Kinsey daughters discuss in clinical terms losing their virginity conveys the sort of atmosphere in the Kinsey home.
It is to Condons credit, and Neesons, that though he subject matter is sometimes graphic, as is the dialogue, the film itself is not prurient, perhaps because it has divorced sex from eroticism with a Kinseyian clinical approach. Sex in this context is fascinating, no doubt about it, its a means of expression, even an insight into different cultures. Still, there is nothing more likely to get people shaken up than frank talk about sex then or now. What is most striking about KINSEY is how so many of the same stale arguments about sex are still plaguing the public discourse, most notably a Depression era, college level sex education course that is little more than a lecture on the virtues of abstinence, the perils of venereal disease, with little, if any, information about anything else. Plus ca change. . .
KINSEY is an intelligent film that is never less than completely humane. For audiences, fidgeting in their seats or giggling nervously as sex in all its manifestations plays out on the screen, it might just change a few cherished assumptions and, ultimately, make them a little more comfortable in their skin.