Warning: Before reading any further, readers should take note that Kinsey is not for everyone. The film’s discussions of human sexuality mince no words and are apt to offend some viewers.
In fact, some conservative and religious groups have lambasted Kinsey, equating its subject, Alfred Kinsey, with Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor. Some of these groups are urging a boycott of the film, because they say it “glorifies” a “monster,” who, in their estimation, set us on the path of rampant sexuality, women’s rights and gay activism.
What Kinsey actually did, of course, was make public some facts about human sexuality that he’d learned through thousands of interviews. Prior to his research, it was commonly taught that masturbation caused blindness and debilitation, that the only sexual position was the missionary one, and that homosexuality was rarer than a gay black man at a Republican fund-raiser. Kinsey’s revelations — that masturbation was common, people experimented with sexual positions, and some 30-odd percent of males had had at least one homosexual experience — didn’t sit well with some people in 1948. And in some quarters, such findings don’t play any better today.
I had the good fortune to see this remarkable movie at the Asheville Film Festival. It was one of the best I’ve seen this year, which was surprising because nothing about the trailer or what I knew of the premise exactly screamed, “You have to see this movie!”
On the other hand, I wasn’t entirely unprepared, since the film is the work of Bill Condon, who made the brilliant 1998 movie Gods and Monsters. That speculative biographical fantasy about filmmaker James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein) snagged a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Condon and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Lynn Redgrave.
If anything, Kinsey is an even better film, and that’s saying a lot, since Gods and Monsters is one of the most nearly perfect films of the past decade. Kinsey is in much the same style as Gods and Monsters (compare Kinsey‘s scenes in the iris garden between Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard with the interview between Ian McKellen and Jack Plotnick in the earlier film). Both films are in the often-disdained biopic realm, but both approach the genre in unusual ways.
Gods and Monsters uses a fictional story to get at the “truth” of its subject, and while the story may not be true, the picture of James Whale rings true — far more so than in any biography of Whale to date.
Kinsey, on the other hand, seems more traditional in that it sticks to the main outline of the man’s life. But Condon doesn’t use a bare-bones approach; instead, he sets out to capture the essence of his subject and something more. Kinsey isn’t just about Alfred Kinsey, it’s about social progress in the face of ignorance and prejudice, with a flawed but fascinating hero (to use the term loosely) at its center. Condon uses a brilliant, three-fold approach, giving us the character, his work and a picture of the times in which he lived. Moreover, Condon covers all this in an entertaining, frequently amusing and often moving fashion.
Again, this is not dissimilar to his approach to James Whale, where Condon grounded — and read — the man through considerations of his work, his impoverished background, his sexuality, his snobbishness and the lifelong effects of his involvement in World War I. With Gods and Monsters, however, Condon had the benefit (and the constraint) of using Chris Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein, as a template. In Kinsey, he uses a similar approach, but is freer to go in the directions he wishes to go, creating his own template.
Condon starts the film with Kinsey (Liam Neeson) using himself and his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), as test subjects for his fellow researchers. This isn’t just clever, it’s brilliant. This introduction economically conveys Kinsey’s research methods, starts filling in information about the main characters and provides an effective means of linking to flashbacks. It also shrewdly puts the title character under a microscope of his own making, forcing him to be as candid about his life and sexuality as his subjects are.
Condon uses this device where it’s useful to him, but he also feels free to expand on his approach to the film’s structure as it progresses. In so doing, he creates what feels like a whole picture of the man, his work and his times.
Particularly fine is the manner in which Condon is careful not to lionize his subject. Kinsey is shown as a basically nice man, a forward thinker and an adventurous researcher, but he’s also pictured as a social disaster (a byproduct of his upbringing). Kinsey seems to feel that he can measure anything, and is blind to the foolhardiness of not only allowing but encouraging sexual relations among his fellow researchers. He’s too outspoken for his own good and too clinical, and while he possesses real human emotions, he’s not quick to recognize such emotions in others.
Condon conveys Kinsey’s flaws in one of the film’s best and funniest scenes, in which the doctor gets a dose of his own medicine. I won’t spoil the scene, which brought down the house and garnered applause from every woman in the audience. But make sure to observe Kinsey’s expression when he overhears Clara blandly saying, “Yes, I think I might like that.”
The performances in this bold and beautiful film match its overall quality. There’s not a false note in the casting — from Neeson and Linney’s powerhouse performances to the impish casting-against-type of Tim Curry as uber-prude Thurman Rice to Lynn Redgrave’s heartbreaking cameo near the film’s end. Every aspect of Kinsey contributes to its artistic success — a success that ought to place Bill Condon in the top echelons of contemporary American filmmakers.
The film is also sadly ironic, because while it’s a period piece (Kinsey died in 1956), the response to it has proven that the questions he explored are just as touchy and timely in our own society, almost 50 years later. Rated R for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images, descriptions and nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke