Sunday, March 06, 2005

Review - Kinsey

The knives were out from certain conservative groups in the US for Kinsey, the new film from writer-director Bill Condon. “For its mocking treatment of decency and morality, Kinsey deserves box-office oblivion," wrote Stephen Adams of online magazine Citizen, arguing that Alfred Kinsey’s “mainstreaming of promiscuity and perversion opened the way to the breakdown of the family and a flood of adultery, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimate births, abortions, condoms in classrooms, the multibillion-dollar pornography industry, gay marriage and paedophilia”. Ouch.

Others were similarly unimpressed. "Alfred Kinsey is responsible in part for my generation being forced to deal face-to-face with the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and abortion," claimed Brandi Swindell, spokesperson for rightwing group Generation Life, the poor dear.

So viewers settling down to watch Kinsey may in for a surprise when they discover that the film is nothing more than a well-made, superbly acted but still extremely conventional biopic, and hardly the assault on moral decency that the film’s critics would have you believe.

The film documents the life and times of Alfred Kinsey (stunningly played by Liam Neeson), who achieved fame in the 1950’s after his exhaustive study of the public’s sexual habits led to two books and a greater understanding of human sexuality. He started out as a biologist, a career path which greatly disappointed his oppressive father (John Lithgow), and taught a class on the gall wasp. This brought him into contact with Clara ‘Mac’ Macmillan (Laura Linney) who proved to be just as liberated and intelligent as he was. The two married but had a difficult wedding night (a first experience for them both) and sought help from a doctor, whose advice led to a full and varied sex life.

Kinsey decided to offer his newfound knowledge to some of his students but was shocked at their ignorance (“What position do you most enjoy?”, he asks one couple, “you mean there’s more than one?” comes the startled reply) and the blatant lies they had been fed (one student believes oral sex leads to birth defects). Resolving to do something about it, he decides to begin a massive scientific survey of American sexuality. He discovered that such taboo subjects as masturbation, homosexuality and extra-marital affairs were common and also learned that every individual had their own ideas on what constituted ‘normal’ sex.

This is ripe material for a biopic and once again, as with his excellent Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon shows an ability to condense plenty of information into his well-paced, witty script. The framing device of Kinsey being subjected to one of his own interviews, which serves as the film’s narration, works well and - aside from a couple of, perhaps unavoidable, lapses - manages to avoid most of the biopic clichés. Condon does acknowledge the darker aspects of Kinsey’s work, such as the affair Kinsey had with his assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), the trouble his encouragement of partner-swapping caused for his team of researchers and his progression into making (and participating) in sex films (surely this is where his scientific interest spilled over into personal obsession). But for the most part these situations are only hinted at and not explored in any real depth. It’s one of Kinsey's flaws, along with Condon’s rather uninspired direction and his fondness for montage sequences, but doesn’t leave too much lasting damage.

The main reason Kinsey works so well is the wonderful cast which has been assembled. Neeson gives the performance of his career in the title role, giving great humanity and complexity to this fascinating character. He’s riveting throughout and can count himself unlucky to have been passed over at Oscar time. He also has a great chemistry with Laura Linney (who was Oscar-nominated) and she delivers yet another excellent display. The supporting cast all pull their weight, with Peter Sarsgaard confirming his status as a young actor to watch with a sensitive and subtle display as the bisexual Clyde and there are typically fine turns from reliable supporting players such as Oliver Platt and Dylan Baker. But it’s John Lithgow who stands out as Kinsey’s tyrannical father. His role seems like a stereotypical one at first, the kind of pompous, sarcastic turn Lithgow can do in his sleep, but there is a beautifully written and acted scene late on which makes us see this man in a new light.

Kinsey is not only a well-made picture but it’s an important one too. Condon’s script is full of lines such as “The forces of chastity are massing again”, a warning which is clearly aimed at modern USA as much as the one of the 1950’s. These lines especially resonate when you consider the hysterical reaction to the film’s release from certain influential groups. Kinsey certainly shows us how far we’ve come in the last 50 years, but it leaves us pondering how far we still have to go.