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Kinsey (2004)

Lets talk about sex.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 118 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Professor Alfred Kinsey was a zoologist at Indiana University quietly working on variation in the gallwasp, but when students approached him for advice on their sexual concerns, he realised that no scientific studies existed for him to consult, and so shifted his research to the field of human sexuality. Pioneering a non-judgemental interview technique, Kinsey and his team collected detailed sexual histories from thousands of people across the country, and his resulting book 'Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male', published in 1948, revolutionised American thinking with its claim, backed up by copious data, that in sexual life there is no such thing as normality. By 1953, however, when his companion volume 'Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female' appeared, the moral climate in the US had shifted, McCarthyism was in full swing, and Kinsey was being hounded by the press, public and courts as a smut-pedlar, and even faced accusations of being un-American. Three years later, his work mired in funding difficulties, he died of heart failure.

If a history of American liberalism were to be written, Kinsey would be one of its key figures, as a defender of science, rationalism and tolerance over religion, repression and superstition – so that, at a time when there is a movement back to Christian fundamentalism in the US, and 'liberal' has become something of a dirty word in much public and political discourse, the biopic 'Kinsey' affords an elegant reflection of the chasmic rifts that have opened up in America's never-ending culture wars. Kinsey – not to mention the film that bears his name – still has power to provoke the most vehement of moral outrage, and only a brief search of the internet is required to see the entomologist being blamed for most if not all of America's ills. Yet the film itself is a decidedly balanced affair, presenting Kinsey not just as a dedicated and rigorous researcher, but also as a somewhat flawed individual, driven by a sort of blindly uncompromising zeal more usually associated (irony of ironies) with his most fervent opponents – and while the cause of science is unequivocally championed by the film, it is still shown as unable to explain all of sexuality's mysteries.

Ingeniously structured as a sexual history interview conducted as practice by student Clyde (Peter Sarsgaard) on Kinsey himself (played with a shy man's assertiveness by Liam Neeson), the film offers a compact overview of Kinsey's life – his relationship with his father (John Lithgow), a domineering bully of a preacher against whom Kinsey reacts from an early age, but whom he continues in many ways to resemble – his relationship with his free-thinking wife Clara (the wonderful Laura Linney), to whom, despite his numerous affairs and railings against monogamy, he remained happily married until the end – and his relationship with his students, staff and interviewees, in which he managed somehow to be compassionate and impartial at the same time.

Writer/director Bill 'Gods and Monsters' Condon has fashioned a film about liberalism that also subtly explores its limits. In one particularly droll sequence, after glibly justifying his own infidelity to Clara in scientific terms, Kinsey finds himself forced to practise what he preaches when she openly strays. Later, the wife-swapping which he does not discourage amongst his assistants almost causes the group – a sort of liberal utopia – to fall apart. And in interviewing the self-confessed sex-addict, paedophile, zoophile and rapist Kenneth Braun (William Sadler), even Kinsey loses his composure (“you know, you're a lot more square than I thought you'd be”, as Braun comments).

So 'Kinsey' turns out to be an unexpectedly restrained, responsible affair, and there is little reason for godfearing folk to get too hot and steamy about it – unless of course, as liberals would say, they want to.

It's Got: John Lithgow fulminating about the invention of the zipper as the bane of all morality; Oscar-luring performances from Liam Neeson and Laura Linney (although neither was nominated - so who says all Hollywood is just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals?); and Kinsey declaring to a reporter that he "cant think of anything more pointless" than a Hollywood picture based on his work.

It Needs: Oscar recognition.


This biopic of pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey has its balls in its brain rather than the other way round.