Kinsey

Kinsey

****

Reviewed by: The Exile

Timing is everything. Arriving in the turbulent wake of an American election seething with red-state "moral values," Kinsey is a potent reminder of the precariousness of hard-won enlightenment. "The enforcers of chastity are massing once again," sighs Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), near the end of the movie. Excuse me while I lock my doors.

But Kinsey's political relevance isn't the only reason to see this remarkable film. Director Bill Condon, whose Gods And Monsters gives a provocative account of the final days of Frankenstein director James Whale, seems to have a knack for complicated men with sex on their minds. Bravely tackling the man who exploded the myth of the vaginal orgasm, Condon's sympathetic and perceptive film is orchestrated to the rhythms of intellectual passion rather than the dry dictates of chronology. This seems to liberate Neeson - an actor of innate intelligence - in a way not seen since Michael Collins. Crackling from the spires of his ferocious crew cut to the soles of his retro Hush Puppies, he shows us a man rapturously gripped by grand ideas.

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The movie opens with a clinically simple frame of Kinsey at Indiana University in the late Thirties. The Harvard educated zoologist turned sex researcher is training a graduate assistant in interview techniques. "Don't sit so far away," he instructs Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard); but the script is really talking to us, coaxing us into the film, closer to the character, while admitting we might have reservations. Then Clyde asks the pivotal question: "How do you get along with your father?" And the film dips backwards to Kinsey's childhood and a preacher father (John Lithgow), obsessed with banishing thoughts of masturbation ("Read the Sermon on the Mount, keep the bowels open and submerge the testicles in ice water" is his three-point plan). Fleeing as fast as he can in the opposite direction, Kinsey grows up to embrace atheism, rationalism and an unshakeable belief in the power and authority of science.

Appalled by the sexual ignorance of his Indiana students, Kinsey begins teaching a groundbreaking and hugely popular course on marriage. On fire now, he designs a nationwide study of thousands of adults, their intimacies recorded in explicit questionnaires administered by his zealous disciples. This section of the film is easily the most buoyant, as Condon lightens the academic atmosphere with an entertaining montage of interview sessions - a welcome, if predictable, breather before the film stiffens to face the inevitable puritan backlash.

It's hard to overstate the impact of Kinsey's work on a society schooled in moral barbarism. When a traditional "hygiene" professor instructs his class that masturbation is the curse of "the lower class male, often Negro," no one even blinks. At a time when shame and ignorance shared control of the bedroom and Hoover and McCarthy were priming their paranoia, the publication of 1948's Sexual Behavior In The Human Male, followed five years later by its female counterpart, sent America to the cultural bunkers and drew accusations of everything from degeneracy to communist conspiracies.

Unfunded, but undaunted, the man who declared celibacy abnormal continued to live as he believed and though Condon supports him, he doesn't flinch from showing the often painful consequences of a determination to uncouple sex from emotion. "Didn't I always do whatever you wanted?" asks Kinsey's patient wife, Clara (Laura Linney), before discovering the upside to her husband's embrace of open marriage. And the marvelous Linney, drabbed down and scrubbed of make-up, is so comfortably sexy here it's easy to believe in the couple's boisterous conjugal life.

An invigorating, revealing movie about the transformative power of ideas, Kinsey comes down firmly on the side of its controversial protagonist. "You saved my life, sir," says an elderly interviewee (Lynn Redgrave), in a lump-in-the-throat moment.

Something tells me the Christian Right won't be choking up.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2005
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The life and ideas of a scientist who believed in sexual healing.
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Read more Kinsey reviews:

Symon Parsons ****
Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Bill Condon

Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, Chris O'Donnell, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker, Julianne Nicholson, William Sadler, John McMartin

Year: 2004

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Germany

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