Sunday 6 November 2016

Movie Review: Kinsey (2004)

A biographical drama about the scientist who revolutionized the understanding of sexuality, Kinsey treats its subject with well-rounded respect, revealing the man's determination and faults. The film is an efficient recounting of a unique career, suffering only slightly from some character repetitiveness.

At Indiana University in the 1930s, insect researcher Professor Al Kinsey develops an interest in researching human sexuality. In flashback, Kinsey's background is revealed. Born to a strict father (John Lithgow), Kinsey refuses to follow the path of engineering and chooses biology instead. He pursues an interest in the migration and evolution of gall wasps, and meets and marries Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). His early sexual experiences with his wife as well as his bisexuality contribute to his curiosity about human sexuality as a science. The current texts in circulation are religious and moralistic nonsense disguised as fact.

Kinsey recruits his students including Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O'Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton) to form the core of a research team. Supported by university president Herman Wells (Oliver Platt) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation represented by Alan Gregg (Dylan Baker), Kinsey and his researchers fan out across the country interviewing thousands. The research findings, first published in the late 1940s, shake the foundations of American society. The former insect professor becomes a celebrity and household name. But a backlash also awaits, and Kinsey's singular obsession with the pure science of sexuality takes a personal and professional toll.

Directed and written by Bill Condon, Kinsey clocks in at under two hours and wastes no time on padding. This is a disciplined, focused film, stylishly divulging the man, the mission and the consequences. Enough background is added to create context without getting lost in side quests. Condon captures the clever simplicity of Kinsey's observational and interview methods, and then the ground shift of awakening unleashed by the resultant research.

Al Kinsey is presented as a visionary, a pioneer and a flawed man, inheriting a lot of more from his intolerable father than he wishes to admit. The scenes of Kinsey's early life are interspersed throughout the film with a light touch, colouring childhood influences in subtle shades. Kinsey the adult becomes dogmatic about his science the way his father was about his brand of religion. After demonstrating a propensity for diving deeply into a narrow topic with his improbable gall wasp obsession, he locks onto sexuality as pure science, reducing human intercourse to a subject stripped of emotional, psychological or societal resonance.

Liam Neeson contributes to the film's appeal, owning the role and settling quickly to embody the scientist as beady-eyed, stubborn and sure of his stance as others recoil in shock when the covers are thrown off to reveal exactly what is going on in the national bedroom. Neeson's intensity helps to ride out the more repetitious scenes, Condon overemphasizing his main character's obtusely stubborn traits. Laura Linney excels as his wife Clara "Mac" McMillan, first astounded by her husband's liberal views of sexuality and then embracing what freedom may mean to her and her marriage. Peter Sarsgaard as Clyde Martin is the most prominent of the researchers who bring Kinsey's research methods to life both professionally and personally.

Kinsey emerges as a dispassionately cold proponent of understanding human coupling for the sake of reckless exploration and personal satisfaction, and eventually pushes too hard and too fast. For all the good that the research achieved, this is a story of the quixotic renegade shoving society two steps forward but one step very much backwards: support seeps away, damage is caused within the team, and a shocked nation reaches the point of too much information. Scientific advancement can be a messy and imperfect path.

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