In a post-November 2nd world, perhaps Kinsey is just what we need. Writer-director Bill Condon’s provocative, problematic biopic takes an unapologetically reverential stance in its portrayal of the 1940s sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), still to this day the epicenter of the right wing’s crusade against moral degeneracy. Past is prologue for the filmmaker, and the fate of Kinsey is projected through a deliberately contemporary filter. Condon credits Kinsey with much of what his detractors demonize him for—namely, the loosening of societal inhibitions regarding sex and the subsequent domino-tumbling effect—but runs into trouble in his attempt to puff up the movie’s entertainment value. In a number of early scenes, Condon goads the audience to laugh at, thus feel superior to, the sexual naiveté of the time, when more people than today were incognizant of oral sex, positions other than missionary, and female orgasms. It is an easy, overused gimmick—like a repeated punchline to one long sex joke. And to an extent, it costs the film its seriousness, but Condon’s exaggeration serves the purpose of illustrating why Kinsey was such a threat to the status quo. Indeed, is such a threat. Kinsey, a frank atheist, piqued curiosity and provided scientific data about the most obsessively thought-controlled topic in the Judeo-Christian canon: sex. By the time his second book was published (Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the counterpart to his first bestseller on the Human Male), he was accused of being a pervert, not to mention a Communist. “The enforcers of chastity are massing once again,” Kinsey bemoans late in the film, his gravel-toned voice echoing from one puritan era into our own.
As Kinsey and his wife Clara, Neeson and Laura Linney progress a few centuries ahead of their John and Elizabeth Proctor roles in the 2002 stage revival of The Crucible. That partnership was a stealthy primer for the contentious brio of their coupling here. A scene where Kinsey confesses his infidelity with a male assistant (Peter Sarsgaard) establishes Clara as the audience surrogate, an emotional victim of his hurtful philosophy that not all sex has to be sanctioned by love. Stricken and teary, Linney plays the reaction shot exactly as you would expect her to (she’s more instinctual in a very similar scene opposite Gabriel Byrne in P.S.), but her acceptance of her husband’s behavior slyly foreshadows the sexual revolution. Neeson, who several years back spoke of his aspiration to portray Oscar Wilde, gets the next best thing as Alfred Kinsey. Neeson has never before been so confidently patriarchal and zealous on-screen, unafraid to convey a certain latent narcissism that remains a point of contention among Kinsey scholars. Framing Neeson in a series of medium shots, and one magnificent long shot that integrates him among giants in the Redwood forest, Condon often exploits Neeson’s size—which, mischievously, includes an anatomical pun vis-à-vis Kinsey’s endowment.
With help from nature-loving cameraman Frederick Elmes, Condon has improved his technical assembly since Gods and Monsters, and his writing is wittier and less marred by cavalier pandering—although Tim Curry’s old school professor and Dylan Baker’s waffling grant donor are plain lip-service to Hollywood’s need for easy-to-dislike villainy. In two pivotal places, however, Condon shows incredible acumen with actors in cameo roles. Not unlike the similarly incendiary People vs. Larry Flynt, Kinsey elects to leave out some grisly trivia, but Condon does address what is probably the most polemical part of the Kinsey treatise—the testimony of a so-called omniphile, whose voluminous history of sex with adults, children, animals, and his own kin was later discovered to be the sole basis for Kinsey’s findings on such questionable matters as boys’ orgasms. Longtime character actor William Sadler locates the pulse of this boastful creature, and chillingly conveys his vacant delight at finding in Kinsey a fascinated, non-moralizing registrar. (The scene concludes a little too pat, with an aide played by Chris O’Donnell storming out of the room, but a Chris O’Donnell exit is always welcome.) Even better is Lynn Redgrave, who delivers a lovely, powerful soliloquy that Condon wisely uncurls in the dignity of real time. Her final expression (“You saved my life, sir”) allows Condon an agenda without him having to push one. Were we living in the riskier, more artistically audacious ‘60s or ‘70s, it’s no doubt that Sadler and Redgrave would both be looking at Oscar nominations. The message of Kinsey, I suppose, is that we don’t live there anymore.