13 June 2005 | BrandtSponseller
The next best thing to talking about sex with body language
Back from a much-too-long hiatus after 1998's masterful character study of James Whale, Gods and Monsters, writer/director Bill Condon gives us a slightly more conventional biopic of important and (sadly) controversial scientist Alfred Kinsey. I say "sadly" controversial because I despise puritanical attitudes about sex in modern cultures much more than Kinsey is shown to in this film. Compared to my views on ethics in general and sex in particular, Kinsey could have been a poster boy for the Moral Majority.
Kinsey is portrayed by Liam Neeson, who turns in one of the best performances of his career. Condon starts the film with a clever, exquisitely realized montage that alternates Kinsey training his team of assistants at the beginning of his sex research days in the late 1940s with flashbacks of Kinsey's childhood up until the time when he was a young adult. The scenes of Kinsey training his research assistants are in black and white and have a slight look of 1950s science documentaries (without the scratchiness and bad splices that some of us can remember from watching old "filmstrips" at school). The flashback scenes are presented in lush color with mostly subtle and gorgeous cinematography. A shot of a young Kinsey looking through a spyglass, framed against a cloudy sky, is just one of many examples of cinematographer Frederick Elmes' strikingly poetic work. This is all set on a bed of typically stunning, pensive music from Carter Burwell.
The sequence is designed to emphasize some of the background and motivations (at least from the "nurture" side) that eventually fueled Kinsey's infamous work. His father, portrayed by John Lithgow, who unfortunately can't be in the film more (it must be a relatively minor part of the film, as Condon has made it), is shown as a religiously staunch moralist espousing antiquated, often superstitious views on sexuality, and preaching of the evils of sexual expression in society. We see from the start that Kinsey has a voracious scientific curiosity and a love of nature. The combination of interests and influences leads him to drop out of the tech school at which his father is a respected teacher and study biology at a university instead.
We enter the beginning of Kinsey's professional career, which he dedicates to studying the gall wasp. He goes to unusual lengths to collect a huge number of specimens in an attempt to attain a kind of "ultimate, objective empiricism". At the same time he meets and falls in love with Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), who becomes his wife. Both Kinsey and McMillen are woefully uneducated and inexperienced when it comes to getting physical, as they disturbingly learn on their honeymoon; it even causes enough problems to lead them to a physician not long afterward. We also see a couple other events emphasizing a general paucity of accurate sex education/information in the culture.
It takes awhile to get through all of the above, and some viewers might feel a twinge of impatience ("when are we going to get to the sex stuff?"--a cry also frequently heard whenever there is mixed company), but Condon, through selective biography, has tied all of Kinsey's background together, with no superfluous details, in what functionally becomes a clever argument suggesting that the only thing that Kinsey could have done in his later years was to study sex in the way that he did.
Condon and Neeson easily paint a complex picture of Kinsey as a sex researcher. Kinsey seems to have an innocent naivety, a scientific thoroughness and "objectiveness" and a worldly, libertine disposition on ethics all at the same time. These all catalyze what eventually became controversial work--and it was often controversial in the eyes of others in each of those modes due to the existence of the other modes in Kinsey. In my view, this is maybe most interesting from the scientific mode--Condon's film goes far in showing that personality and individualistic quirks inevitably have an effect on science, despite the popular mythology about that field, which has it as more of a dispassionate, even robotic endeavor. Of course, reactionary fervor from various morally conservative groups and those who wanted to keep various morally conservative groups in their good graces was the eventual undoing of Kinsey, and Condon shows this in the film while amazingly managing to not seem overly polemical.
Of course, Kinsey is a character-driven film that largely stands or falls due to its performances. Besides Neeson and Lithgow, the other principals--primarily Linney and Peter Sarsgaard, as Kinsey employee and intimate Clyde Martin--are excellent in demanding roles.
But Kinsey also has a surprising amount of unusual and exemplary technical aspects. The interesting cinematography continues throughout. A long sequence of Kinney traveling across the country and interviewing all different kinds of people is refreshingly different and effective, especially as floating heads recede in the frame like passing highway dividing lines before quickly morphing into each other.
The make-up, which has to age the principals 30 years or so, is masterfully done--at beginning of the film, you'll find yourself saying, "Geez, Liam Neeson, John Lithgow et al look young for their age", and at the end, "Geez, they look old for their age". In both parts of the film, the cast looks like they "really" must look just as they do at that moment.
If I had to pick on something as less than satisfactory, it would be a backhanded criticism--Carter Burwell's music seems a bit underused throughout the middle section of the film. When that's the extent of the negative criticism, it means you need to see the film. Moreover, it's important socially for everyone to see this film now. For whatever reason, Puritanism keeps rearing its evil little head in modern cultures. Kinsey can help remind us of more rational (not to mention healthy, satisfying, fun, etc.) perspectives.