Kinsey (15)

Let's talk about sex
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The only one who knew how to reach them, to paraphrase the song, was the son of a preacher man. One might pity the young Alfred Kinsey for having to endure a father (John Lithgow) whose puritanical sermons railed against the zip-fastener - it promoted sexual freedom, apparently - but in retrospect it might just be that paternal repression was the spur to his son's curiosity. Writer-director Bill Condon's biopic of the scientist maintains an intriguing double vision. It acknowledges the value of Kinsey's pioneering sex surveys and the 1948 book Sexual Behaviour in The Human Male that was the result, but it also makes the case that statistics tended to undermine the claims of social responsibility and, indeed, of common humanity.

The only one who knew how to reach them, to paraphrase the song, was the son of a preacher man. One might pity the young Alfred Kinsey for having to endure a father (John Lithgow) whose puritanical sermons railed against the zip-fastener - it promoted sexual freedom, apparently - but in retrospect it might just be that paternal repression was the spur to his son's curiosity. Writer-director Bill Condon's biopic of the scientist maintains an intriguing double vision. It acknowledges the value of Kinsey's pioneering sex surveys and the 1948 book Sexual Behaviour in The Human Male that was the result, but it also makes the case that statistics tended to undermine the claims of social responsibility and, indeed, of common humanity.

As Kinsey, Liam Neeson has stand-up hair that seems to bristle with static, the outward sign of an inner energy that propels him from browbeaten lummox to passionate scientist to, ultimately, social evangelist (the apple didn't fall far from the tree). He begins his professional life as an entomologist whose main object of interest is the gall wasp: scientific thoroughness is Kinsey's strength, though it is his disastrous wedding-night fumble with his wife Mac (Laura Linney) that really stings him into action. Distressed by their ignorance of sex, they consult a doctor to glean some basic physiology, and soon their nights are resounding to the triumphant twang of the bedspring. But it isn't enough for Kinsey to sort out his own sex life; he conceives it as a mission to sort out the whole country's.

Condon pokes fun at the stuffy times, the tragicomic naivety and the pathetic superstitions that clustered around sex, and not just the old ones about masturbation and blindness: as late as the 1930s manuals were warning that rampant adultery was a possible cause of earthquakes.

What Kinsey did was to demystify the subject by asking ordinary Americans what they got up to in the bedroom, and so reveal that their urges and activities, far from being perverted, were a common currency. As the sex data accumulates, the film presents a collage of talking heads that eventually fills out a map of America, a cheeky parody of Forties documentary illustration that nevertheless makes a serious point: a revolution had begun, and Kinsey was its prophet.

And, just as a prophet requires believers, he recruits a team of young researchers to help him, schooling them in how to interview people: look them in the eye, use their language, don't be judgmental. His zeal to understand others, however, proves ironically at odds with his inability to understand himself: the man of science is far from a straight arrow. As a young Scout he avoids a gay encounter by seeking refuge in prayer, but his bisexual tendencies will not be quelled. One of his disciples, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard, creepily insinuating), eventually seduces him in a hotel room, an affair that becomes almost farcically complicated when the young man ends up in bed with Mrs Kinsey, too.

Among his research staff - Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell play prominent roles - wife-swapping becomes the norm, though it's hard to gauge what view the film takes of this: are these proto-swingers bravely experimental or just impossibly naive? Kinsey himself, while overseeing this little republic of free love, warns against "intense romantic entanglements", but this merely suggests how little he understood human nature.

Kinsey has fascinating moments that never quite add up to a fascinating film. Condon illuminates the paradoxes and contradictions of character, and supplements it with a good deal of information about the sex life of America in the mid-20th century. He is good at conveying the way Kinsey's enthusiasm and commitment gradually congealed into obsession, to the point where even family dinners became dominated by discussion of genitalia.

As so often with biopics, there's plenty of story, but there's hardly any plot. I dare say there was much disappointment among Kinsey and his team when the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its funding for their research, but the camera passing along a boardroom table from one stone-faced worthy to another doesn't exactly register as a dramatic highlight.

The film does have one great scene, however, and it involves Lithgow's preacher father. A hateful bully for most of Kinsey's life, he is goaded by his son late on in the story to answer the famous sex questionnaire. Hugely reluctant, the old man eventually agrees, and tells such a piercingly sad story about his own repressed childhood that it moves Kinsey to tears. The implication is that, thanks to the understanding that his research has fostered, people should not be tormented for their sexuality, a point rather overstated by the testimony of a "liberated" woman (Lynn Redgrave): "You saved my life," she tells Kinsey.

Was Kinsey to be trusted? Condon remains ambivalent, casting him as a crusader of sexual enlightenment yet acknowledging that he was also deeply misguided and short of common sense.

The scene in which he experiments by puncturing his own foreskin reveals him as, well, a bit of a plonker. Bleeding on to the floor, he informs his wife that he experienced no pleasure. No kidding! More seriously, he seems a virtual stranger to empathy. Eager to spearhead a revolution in social attitudes, he was unable to see that social restraints can prevent people hurting one another. "Am I normal?" his subjects repeatedly wonder, little realising that Kinsey wasn't the best man to ask.

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