|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 17 May 2005|
The ads for “Kinsey” didn’t describe it as “the feel-good film of the year,” but in fact, it has precisely that effect. In creating a drama about the life of socially pivotal sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who by all reports was a somewhat cold and emotionally challenged man, writer/director Bill Condon has created something warm, insightful, often funny and ultimately exhilarating.
As shown in “Kinsey,” Alfred (played as an adult by Liam Neeson, at 10 by Will Denton, at 14 by Matthew Fahey and at 19 by Benjamin Walker), son of a supremely repressed and oppressive minister (John Lithgow), isn’t initially preoccupied by sex. His major act of rebellion is going into science rather than religion, specializing in wasps. He becomes a university professor, known affectionately to his students as “Prok” (short for “Professor K”), and eventually falls for, proposes to and marries one of his pupils, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). There are some conjugal difficulties at the beginning of the marriage between the two erstwhile virgins, but the problem is easily rectified with surgery. Then some of Kinsey’s biology students shyly come to him with questions about the physical aspects of their marriage. Kinsey realizes he has no idea what’s normal within a physical relationship, because a scientific norm can only be determined by statistics, and no one has ever compiled statistics on human sexual behavior. Kinsey decides to rectify this gap in human knowledge – which, in the United States of the 1950s, touches off an incredible social firestorm.
There is a timely feel to the collision of facts and phobias – people are alternately fascinated and outraged (sometimes both) by what Kinsey is doing – but the heart of the film is in the depiction of the Kinseys’ marriage, which withstands pretty much everything, including Alfred’s affair with a male assistant (Peter Sarsgaard) and Clara’s later dalliance with the same young man. Kinsey believes that sex and love are not necessarily linked – he never seems to comprehend that most of the world doesn’t compartmentalize things the way he does, which makes him seem alternately blind and touchingly naïve. The scenes of information-gathering are sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious and, especially in a sequence featuring William Sadler as a conscienceless predator, sometimes truly disturbing.
Neeson projects fierce determination, a touch of smugness, genuine curiosity and a surprising, affecting air of innocence, while Linney – rightly nominated for an Oscar for her work here – is vibrant, witty and engaging as his loyal partner. Sarsgaard is convincing as the assistant whose friendship transcends all social conventions, even when he feels out of his depth, and Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton are both extremely good as other key researchers in Kinsey’s project.
Condon and cinematographer Frederick Elmes give “Kinsey” a beautiful burnished look, utilizing the widescreen 2.35:1 ratio very shrewdly, so that the close-ups always incorporate the world the characters live in along with explorations of their deepest emotions. The sound recording is fine, with very good subtleties picked up in the sex scene in Chapter 5 and a realistic mixture of projector click, film strip dialogue and ambient sound from the audience as a classroom watches a 1950s short on the dangers of syphilis. However, fine though the mix is, there is virtually no use of discrete sound – the rears are pretty much unoccupied on the DTS track (there’s also a regular 5.1 track).
The writer/director audio commentary incorporates both details of making the film and details of Kinsey’s life, including Condon’s observations about the reactions of Kinsey’s now-grown children to certain aspects of the depiction of their father.
Condon paces “Kinsey” cleverly, springing little surprises on us at every turn, so that we don’t know whether to expect playfulness, revelation, dismay or some combination at every turn. The filmmaker is aware of the humor in showing us people who are intent on discovery while often being clueless about their own lives, but we feel for them even as we sometimes laugh out loud. There’s also a fair amount of pretty vigorous sex, some passionate and some simply clinical. What’s most heartening, though, is the film’s ultimate message: it is natural for living beings to each be distinct individuals. While not a living being, “Kinsey” is definitely distinct, a fine film that serves as character study, social commentary, history lesson and overall engrossing experience.