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Imagine a time and a place where sexuality is repressed to the point that talk about it is discouraged, sex education is banned, people are ill informed. The government discourages research in the subject and tries to censor important health information, particularly concerning birth control, abortion, homosexuals. Young people are encouraged to practice abstinence before marriage. Anything other than sex in the missionary position, between a man and a woman who are married to each other, is taboo. Anyone trying to openly discuss sex is attacked by conservatives and the religious right. No, I'm not talking about the United States of 2004 under the chilling effects of the Fourth Great Awakening, I am talking about the year 1948 when Alfred Kinsey published his landmark book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. That book and its sequel, published in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, rocked American society as probably no other scholarly works have done before or since. The new film, Kinsey, follows the life of Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), his wife (Laura Linney) and their intrepid band of researchers (Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Hutton, and Chris O'Donnell) as they interview thousands of men and women about their sex lives. Kinsey is a professor at Indiana University where he is supported in his research by the President (Oliver Platt) and opposed by a fellow professor (Tim Curry) who teaches the university's marriage course. The film tells Kinsey's story from when he was a boy, growing up under a strict and religious father (John Lithgow), to shortly before his death in 1956.
As the film tells us, no scientific study of human sexuality had been done before Kinsey who started his academic career studying Gall Wasps. It is tough for any scientist to separate work and personal lives but for the sex researchers, the two became inextricably linked. They filmed themselves having sex with their wives other people's wives. Kinsey himself was bisexual. The reaction to the first book was initially positive but by the time the second book came out, Kinsey was attacked from all sides. It's one thing to talk about men enjoying sex but when you start implying that women enjoy sex, then there's going to be trouble. It reminds me of the reaction of wife of the Bishop of Worcester to Darwin’s theory of evolution. She said: "My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray it will not become generally known."
I didn't know what to expect from this film but I was pleasantly surprised. Kinsey, does a really good job of dealing with both Kinsey's work and his personal life and how they were intertwined. They have done a good job of dramatization without straying too much from the true story. The director, Bill Condon, previously did Gods and Monsters, another film about sex that is hidden. He is very good at directing. In particular, Condon makes good use of the interviews that the characters are doing and these are interspersed throughout the film. We are introduced to Kinsey as he is interviewed for practice by one of his staff.
The cast is great. Neeson is under-rated as an actor because he always under-plays his roles. He has only one Oscar nomination (Schindler's List) but he deserves another one here. Laura Linney, shows again that she can make a wife role into something great. She took a minor role as Sean Penn's wife in Mystic River and made it amazing. In Kinsey, she has a much meatier role and she takes off with it. She and Neeson have worked together a lot and their comfort level is very high. But the hottest moment in Kinsey doesn't involve Linney. It's a passionate kiss between Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard. I can understand that. Sarsgaard is amazing. I would like to kiss him. Sarsgaard is having a breakout couple of years with Shattered Glass, Garden State and Kinsey. He tends to steal any scene that he is in. The appearance of two other members of the Kinsey staff are a bit of a shock, Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton! Where have they been? They both had breakout films at an early age, Scent of a Woman for O'Donnell and Ordinary People for Hutton. Since then, O'Donnell played Robin and then dropped out of sight. Hutton has been bouncing around forever, popping up once in a while with a nice little role. Anyway, both of them are very good here. Oliver Platt is a little less oily than usual as the University President. And John Lithgow is genuinely scary as Kinsey's father. He is doing a riff on his minister/father role in Footloose but much darker.
This film has some buzz and it's well earned. It is going to be on my best-of-the-year list. Kinsey takes a very complicated person and doesn't try to uncomplicate him. That's one thing that makes Ray so good and it works for Kinsey too. And the parallels between life just after World War II in Kinsey and life in America today are surreal. Do we really have to go back to the 50's?