Kinsey (15)

Written and Directed by Bill Condon
Screening at FACT from 4th - 17th March 2005

Reviewed by Tim Kopp

At times conservatively selective in what it shows, this account of the life of former zoologist-turned sex scientist Alfred Kinsey is less daring than it appears to be. Still, with superb turns from Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, this is an amiable biopic that calls for greater tolerance and acceptance of sexuality and diversity. *** out of five

Indiana in the mid-1940s. After defying the wishes of his rigidly religious father and successfully completing his biology studies, Alfred Kinsey becomes a zoologist at the local university. While teaching on the subject of gall wasps, Kinsey falls in love with, and eventually marries one of his students, Clara McMillen. Having experienced the suppression of sexuality first hand and seeing it reflected in the lives of his students, Kinsey advocates and succeeds in the introduction of a marriage course. Seeing the education and enlightenment of the population on sexual behaviour as his purpose in life, he founds the Institute of Sexual Research in 1947 and begins his own research into the sex lives of ordinary people. Based on interviews of over 18,000 men and women, he publishes two comprehensive reports documenting male and female sexuality in 1948 and 1953 respectively. However, his ambitions to conduct and publish further studies are met with strong opposition from the country’s conservative communities.

Credited with starting the sexual revolution with his 1948 report, “Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male” and its 1953 follow-up on female sexuality, Alfred Kinsey became the best-known American of his time, second only to President Harry S. Truman. His motivation was to liberate the American population from society’s pressures by providing morally neutral advice and information on sexual behaviour, practice and diversity. This made him a target for religious conservatives of both his time and our present, as demonstrated by the furore surrounding the new film and its gay director, Bill Condon, in America.

Kinsey, Condon’s second biopic after his award-winning Gods and Monsters, is a respectable attempt to summarise and emphasise Kinsey’s achievements, his status as a pioneering scientist, and his historic significance within US society and culture. The film benefits from Condon’s articulate, concise script and the impressive ensemble cast: in particular Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are terrific. John Lithgow’s has a memorable supporting turn as Kinsey’s bigoted father and Lynn Redgrave’s cameo in the picture’s closing minutes is profoundly moving.

Kinsey is progressive in the way it acknowledges, advertises and reinforces the need to promote tolerance and acceptance of sexual and social diversity. Deflecting right-wing claims to the contrary, the film is also mindful of the limitations and difficulties faced by Kinsey and his contemporaries in dealing with these issues: in one instance Kinsey’s assistant Pomeroy breaks with their non-judgemental interview policy after a client has admitted to incest. Still, Condon’s film is not quite as comprehensive and daring as it could be: its account of Kinsey does on the one hand acknowledge the flaws of a man who regarded sex purely as a biological process and considered feelings of love as irrelevant to it. Yet Kinsey is also surprisingly selective to the point of hinting at and then fudging the issue of his secret life as a bisexual with voyeuristic and masochistic tendencies, as a man who had affairs with his colleagues, cruised for gay prostitutes and conducted private orgies.

We therefore get a film that laudably advocates tolerance and acceptance but simultaneously sanitises its subject matter. By playing it safe, Kinsey is more conservative and conventionally mainstream than one would have originally assumed. It also fails to take the opportunities that offer themselves to question the moral climate of the time. When we learn that Kinsey is trailed by the FBI on orders from J. Edgar Hoover, it is, given the bureau chief’s own history of mixing with transvestites, a bit surprising that Condon doesn’t take advantage of this to expose the irony of the moral double standards of Kinsey’s critics. Altogether though, it is a commendably pragmatic and superbly acted film that should encourage further debate and reflection.