Dir. Bill Condon, 2004, USA/Germany, 118 mins
Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard
Bill Condon's handsome and intelligent biopic of the pioneering sexual behaviourist Alfred Kinsey has caused much moral outrage amongst the massed ranks of the conservative right in America. A depressing marker that not an awful lot has changed in the 60 years since the publication of his findings caused such a sensation. Family breakdown, soaring rates of divorce and abortion, STDs, paedophilia, gay marriages, and any other 'social ill' you'd care to mention, are all apparently the fault of Kinsey and his research team. It was they who conducted thousands of interviews across the United States to investigate and compile the secret sexual behaviour of Americans in the 1940s and early fifties. More noteably, Kinsey's 1948 publication "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" was one of the first recorded works that saw science address sexual behavior.
The film begins with Kinsey as a shy and repressed adolescent, emotionally terrorised by his Methodist father (a glowering turn from John Lithgow, who compares lust to "the hydra . it grows many heads!"). Defying his father's wishes by studying biology rather than engineering, the adult Kinsey spends years in solitude, slavishly compiling biological facts and figures on the gall wasp, and teaching at Indiana University. Eventually, he meets and falls in love with the free spirited Mac (Laura Linney), whom he later marries. Both virgins, their wedding night proves to be a painful and embarrassing occasion that they are unable to consummate. When a simple visit to the doctor allows the couple to enjoy a vigorous and loving sexual relationship, Kinsey becomes intent on challenging the prudish received wisdom on sexuality that he views simply as "hooey - morality disguised as fact". Recruiting a team of researchers, he sets about compiling 'sexual histories', devising a coded scoring system based on the subject's sexual preferences and experiences ('0' being wholly heterosexual, '6' being wholly homosexual.). Before long, Kinsey and his team begin to push the boundaries of their own sexuality, indulging in partner swapping and experimentation; firstly in the name of science, then in the name of social freedom.
Using the Kinsey interview technique as a structural device, Condon depicts the team's transformation from vogue-ish scientific crusaders, to pariahs of public decency, and contrasts that to the inevitable fallout in their personal lives. The publication of their Male study proves to be a popular hit but, in a telling double standard, a Female study leads to outrage and disgust. The film's tone significantly darkens when Kinsey comes face to face with his fiendish alter ego - a serial and prolific sexual compulsive called Kenneth Braun, who claims to have slept with 9,412 men, women, boys, girls and animals, and catalogued them all. Kinsey's fellow researcher storms out of the interview with disgust, representing the audiences' revulsion, whilst Kinsey remains; dispassionate and unwilling to pass moral judgement.
With this film, Condon has created a very satisfying and rich work, helped considerably by an intelligent and economic script and a clutch of superb performances. Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Oliver Platt all stand out from an excellent ensemble, and Laura Linney thoroughly deserves her Oscar nomination as Kinsey's wife, lover and inspiration. But it is Liam Neeson who is the most impressive, turning in a beautifully sensitive, nuanced and empathetic performance as the man of science trying to come to terms with that most enigmatic of human urges.
Indeed, for all its celebration of diversity and personal freedom, the film remains very pro-couples, if not quite pro-monogamy. Mac stands by Kinsey throughout his dalliances with bisexuality, infidelities and his public vilification, reminding the voracious quantifier that "love is impossible to measure", and that when it comes to love, "we're all in the dark."