“Don’t sit so far away.” Kinsey begins with an interview, or more precisely, a series of interviews cut together. Even more precisely, these are practice interviews, wherein Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) sits across from his young, eager researchers, teaching them how to ask direct questions, how to affect interest but not judgment, how to fill out the 287 boxes on each interviewee’s answer sheet, and how close to sit. Such attention to every detail of the process is typical of Kinsey, a renowned obsessive when it came to his work.
The fact that his work was sex made Kinsey something of a sensation during his lifetime. It also makes him alarmingly relevant today, as conservative movements increasingly seek to close down sex education, equal rights based on sexual identity, even discussions about sex (and evolution, for that matter). The same battles Kinsey waged half a century ago are now resurrected, with the resurgence of censorship, intolerance, and repression, stemming from fear of sexual behaviors, desires, and differences, the very objects of Kinsey’s pioneering studies.
According to a recent CNN report, these protests against the film (launched by groups with names like Generation Life, Concerned Women of America’s Culture, and Focus on the Family) say it “mocks Christianity and condones immorality,” with one Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women of America’s Culture & Family Institute, go so far as to compare Kinsey to Josef Mengele. Such excess only makes for more headlines, which might sell more tickets, or might, in this case, inspire a less hysterical counter-campaign, as Fox Searchlight has enlisted renowned academics (including Dr. Ruth) to speak in favor of openness and scientific research, and specifically the groundbreaking nature of Kinsey’s work.
How strange this moment would seem to Kinsey, whose dedication to science – as a lifelong pursuit, framework for knowledge, and mode of feeling — led him to reject so-called “moral” judgments, in order that he might discover the ways that desires create social and political systems, dictate norms and uncertainties. In 1938, asked to teach a course on “marriage” at Indiana University, Kinsey is flabbergasted to see the sense or science in the existent syllabus; he calls it “Morality disguised as fact.” And so, he made it his mission to find a way to document and teach sex, to classify and comprehend how people do it. When his first massive study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948, he became a media celebrity — and only partly reluctantly. Early on, Kinsey understood the power he might wield with stardom. And every bit of money or clout he earned, he put back into his work.
As they recur throughout the film, Kinsey’s interviews serve as a structural motif, a frame on which to hang a set of biographical flashbacks. And so you learn that his father (John Lithgow) was an ornery Methodist and Sunday school teacher, determinedly preaching the evils of even thinking about sex. Just so, young Al grows up inhibited but also curious, his scientific bent emerging early enough to upset dad (the fact that he goes on to attend Bowdoin College, study biology and psychology, then earn a degree in taxonomy from Harvard, and dedicate himself to the study of a specific kind of wasp hardly ingratiates him with his father). Their initial break (one of several dramatized in the film) comes when Al calls his father a “prig,” whereupon his father accuses him of becoming a “shady person,” someone who “keeps secrets.”
This theme — the keeping and costs of secrets — underlies much of the film, as Kinsey’s own fears and longings are revealed by way of the interviews. Moreover, it is his job, by the time he embarks on the sex studies, to gather and write down other people’s secrets, and to try never to keep any of his own. No surprise, such resolute honesty leads to misunderstandings when he starts experimenting sexually, and feels the need to confess to his wife, the stunningly perceptive Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), whom he meets when he’s a professor and she’s a student at Indiana.
All these factual events — including the Kinseys’ initial difficulty with sex (his penis is too large and her body needs “adjusting”) and his fateful decision, with Mac’s encouragement and ongoing support, to undertake his years-long study — appear in the film as bits of scenes, gestures toward plot that don’t so much explain or even reveal the man’s life as much as they set up for the more intricate, less delineated emotional journeys shared by Kinsey, Mac, and his researchers.
Perhaps most difficult to convey is Kinsey’s enthusiasm for his work, partly perverse, partly admirable, and partly marvelous. Mac stands in frequently for the audience, observing her husband’s distress and inelegance, as he can’t stop himself from offending someone, or can’t get his great big mind around the possibility that his actions have consequences for someone else. Again and again, she offers sensible, tolerant advice when he comes to an impasse, even prods him to step beyond what she calls his “churchy” tendencies. But she is also, like the audience, on the outside of Kinsey. Thanks in large part to Neeson’s careful performance, Kinsey appears here as a man of prodigious intelligence and brilliant insight, who has predictable difficulties dealing with day to day social particulars.
His interactions with Indiana’s administration (Oliver Platt as the generously inclined President Herman Wells) or fellow faculty (Tim Curry as the nastily competitive Thurman Rice) typically appear so that the imbalances of “intellectual” and “practical” concerns, sometimes comic, often tense, in rhythms that recall those of director Bill Condon’s previous biography, the superbly nuanced Gods and Monsters. Still, Kinsey’s mix of self-doubt and ego is hard to show. When he is reviled for his study of women’s sexuality, which exposes uncomfortable minutiae about “mothers” and “daughters,” he is “forgiven” in an awkward sort of movie closure scene, as a lesbian (Lynne Redgrave) thanks him for “saving” her life. While such responses may be “true,” in a broad or even particular sense, the scene feels tacked on, a way to explain too much in a few minutes.
At its best, Kinsey turns nearly impressionistic, as when it represents the doctor’s increasingly convoluted relationships with his team, Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton), and Clyde Martin (Peter Saarsgard, once again offering a fluid, lovely, and sometimes unnerving performance — no one can ambiguate sex and desire as this young actor can). Kinsey’s early sexual liaison with Clyde leads to some partner swapping with Mac, and eventually, captured on film for research purposes, with the researchers’ young wives. Unable to view these films (they’re still locked away), Condon turns them into fuzzy, wide-angled, black-and-white fever-dreamish sequences, imagining how the team might have become wildly intimate under their ostensibly professional terms. The shots are difficult to read, weird, and disturbing, insinuating the tangle of goals and means in which they all engaged.
When Paul and Clyde eventually come to blows, the former upset that the latter has apparently seduced his wife beyond their lab settings, Kinsey breaks them up like squabbling children. He’s startled here that they are unable to maintain their scientific distance on such events. And here, briefly, Clyde, who has been both Kinsey and Mac’s lover as well, with full knowledge on all parts, looks astounded that Kinsey hasn’t quite caught up, that he remains so locked into his naïve wonder at the acts, perhaps willfully rejecting the emotional resonances, responsibilities, and losses that sex represents and evokes.
Kinsey‘s shape is episodic, offering a series of such moments in the doctor’s career and life, some more convincing and less secure than others. Yet all are interconnect, in ways that repay re-viewing. While, as Kinsey says here, “One of the aims of science is to simplify,” art can only complicate.