Bill Condon's smart, stirring life of the renowned mid-century sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, has a lot to say on the subject of sex, which it treats with sobriety, sensitivity and a welcome measure of humor. Condon, who parsed the riddles of erotic desire in his earlier film Gods and Monsters, regards the humid matters of the flesh with a dry, sympathetic intelligence. What really turns him on, though -- or at any rate what makes his new movie's heart beat faster -- is science.
The director addresses sexuality with candor and wit, but it is the act of research as much as its object that imparts to Kinsey its flush of passion and its rush of romance. I can't think of another movie that has dealt with sex so knowledgeably and, at the same time, made the pursuit of knowledge seem so sexy. There are some explicit images and provocative scenes, but it is your intellect that is most likely to be aroused.
Which is, of course, its own form of pleasure, one all too rarely granted by film biographies of the famous and the great. Unlike written lives, which thrive on endless expansion and documentation, biopics must compress and shape the messy narrative of actual life into three acts and two hours, and the conventions of the genre have the effect of eroding the very individuality they mean to celebrate, constructing smooth, nearly interchangeable stories of trauma and triumph out of the knotty partic-ulars of public life and personal history. Kinsey does not entirely escape from these conventions, and includes a few scenes in which its protagonist's character is explained rather than embodied.
There is, for example, a dinner table scene midway through in which Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is clearly treating his son with the same imperious lack of sympathy that his own father (John Lithgow) inflicted on him. We get the point, but just in case we missed it, Kinsey's wife (Laura Linney) steps in to berate her husband. "Have you learned nothing?'' she demands. "Nothing?''
Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Liam Neeson (Alfred C. Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara McMillen), Chris O'Donnell (Wardell Pomeroy), Peter Sarsgaard (Clyde Martin), Timothy Hutton (Paul Gebhard), John Lithgow (Alfred Seguine Kinsey), Tim Curry (Thurman Rice)
Running time: 118 minutes
Taiwan Release: today
In spite of a few heavy-handed moments like that one, Kinsey is remarkably adept in showing us just how much Kinsey did learn, and how much we can and did learn from him. Depending on your view of current mores, he was either a Promethean figure, liberating Americans from ignorance, superstition and hypocrisy, or a Pandora opening up a box of permissiveness and perversion. Condon clearly takes the first view, and he argues the case for Kinsey's contribution to sexual knowledge and social health without ignoring the more troubling aspects of his life and legacy.
But his Kinsey -- whose hobbies include gardening and classical music, and who is rarely without his trademark bow tie -- is also, charmingly, a nerd. "You're a lot more square than I thought you'd be,'' says one of his research subjects, and the future Mrs. Kinsey finds him a little "churchy." Kinsey, a zoologist specializing in the taxonomy of gall wasps, came late to sex, as both an intellectual and a physical pursuit. As the movie tells it, his fieldwork, collecting hundreds of thousands of wasp specimens, offered an escape from a sickly, unhappy childhood and from his bullying, puritanical father, a professor at the Stevens Institute in Rochester and a Methodist lay preacher first shown inveighing against such sinful modern inventions as the combustion engine, the electric light and the zipper. "Lust has a thousand avenues,'' he rails.