Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In focusing its attentions primarily on the personal, Kinsey risks sidelining the importance of its protagonist's academic work, but the balance of the film works very well."

Alfred Kinsey, known to his friends as Prok, was an entomologist who specialised in the study of gall wasps and might have expected to spend his whole life in obscurity were it not for a sudden change of direction. In the late 1940s, outraged by the level of ignorance amongst his students, he undertook the pioneering study of human sexuality which resulted in the publication of Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male (to be followed a year later by Sexual Behaviour In The Human Female), and precipitated a social revolution. Even today, his work is controversial. In these circumstances, it's surprising that no previous attempt has been made to dramatise his life for the big screen. This gentle, witty, mercifully understated biopic attempts to combine the personal with the scientific to create an accessible picture of a complicated man.

In focusing its attentions primarily on the personal, Kinsey risks sidelining the importance of its protagonist's academic work, but the balance of the film works very well. By looking directly at the social climate in which he grew up, it is able to communicate the ubiquity of sexual repression and ignorance without lecturing.

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Liam Neeson turns in a quirky but well-judged performance in the central role, portraying an irascible yet well intentioned man with an infectious enthusiasm for science. It is this enthusiasm on which the film depends, and which the script cleverly maintains most of the way through, though some of the montage footage drags. Not everyone will be able to relate directly to the taxonomic geekery which brings together Kinsey and his wife, but Laura Linney is superb as Mac, and chemistry between the two is quite affecting. Less constrained by a duty to history, Linney is more flexible, perhaps more human. She helps to maintain the film's vital emotional warmth as her husband and his assistants become increasingly obsessed with their work.

Due to the nature of Kinsey's work, this film is full of frank sexual conversation and contains some erotic images, but, to its great credit, it never relies on this to maintain audience interest. When interviewees are featured, the focus is more often on their emotional experiences and on the liberating effect for them of being able to talk openly for the first time. In this regard, it takes a strongly positive view of its subject, which is perhaps its greatest weakness - though it shows the fall from grace which came about when the public began to find Kinsey's work distasteful, it does very little to directly address the criticism he faced, preferring to ignore it.

Though it does cover his famous interview with a prolific paedophile, there is little examination of the argument as to whether or not he should have turned the man over to the police - whether it could have helped anybody (in a climate where allegations of child abuse were generally disbelieved) and whether or not his greater duty was to the promise of confidentiality which enabled his research to take place. This moral obfuscation is a serious shortcoming in an otherwise incisive, impressively detailed film.

Kinsey remains intelligent and rewarding, full of revelations for those unfamiliar with its subject and dramatically absorbing enough for others. Its little hints at the manner of Kinsey's death, which it chooses not to present, add an element of tragedy to what is, overall, a story of success. For better or worse, it's difficult to imagine now how the world might have turned out without this man, and this film is an important contribution to his remembrance.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2009
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The life and ideas of a scientist who believed in sexual healing.
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Read more Kinsey reviews:

The Exile ****
Symon Parsons ****

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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