Bill Condon's biopic tells the story of the man who uncovered America's sexual hypocrisies... but gets a little bogged down.

By James Rogan

“How often do you masturbate? What kind of stimulation brings you to orgasm? Have you ever had sexual relations with a member of the same sex?” These are among the questions Alfred C Kinsey posed his subjects when he conducted the first ever large-scale survey of American sexual habits. The results, of course, shocked and offended the apple-pie America of the late forties and early fifties. It seems America was not ready to hear that Jack was sleeping with Jim while Jill was masturbating furiously in the bathroom.

Several decades and a sexual revolution later, talking about sex has become a major industry, it even has its own primetime TV show (Sex and the City). Writer/director Bill Condon’s  new film quietly reminds us that, in an age when Janet Jackson’s nipple can provoke a national outcry, Kinsey was the first to point out that in matters of sex America is prone to preach one thing and practise entirely another.

Kinsey is really two films: one about this moral hypocrisy, as mined and exposed by a scientist; the other is the biopic about Kinsey’s life. The film is at its best tackling the moral hypocrisy. The beginning portrays Kinsey (Liam Neeson) briefing his assistants (Peter Saarsgard, Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton) on how to elicit a ‘sex history’ from an interviewee, warning them that “maintaining a non-judgemental attitude is harder than you think.”  Later Chris O’Donnell’s character storms out of an interview with a paedophile (although given that he claims to have had sex with nine thousand people and a thousand animals, he is more everything-phile), Kinsey just sighs and gets on with the interview. The film makes a lot out of the sex histories Kinsey encounters, as they paint an often funny picture of a society literally groping around in the dark. In the face of all the lies, misinformation and hellfire, Kinsey pointed out that each person’s sexual make-up is unique, that the term ‘normal’ is not relevant when dealing with human sexuality. There’s only ‘common’ or ‘rare’.

Liam Neeson thrives in the title role as the boy-scout on a mission to tell the truth whatever the cost. Where some actors trade on variety, Neeson trades on presence. Like Robert Mitchum or Clint Eastwood, he seems to have been chiselled out of granite, making him the perfect adamantine centre for a moral problem. Equally good is Laura Linney as Kinsey’s understanding and game wife, Clara. Condon elicits delightfully unfussy performances from these two leads and their marriage becomes the heart and soul of the film. Their first attempt at sex is painfully and refreshingly amateur, ending with Kinsey jumping out of bed to go and consult ‘an expert’. Later, when Kinsey’s research leads him to sleep with one of his male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard), Clara takes it on the chin and then sleeps with him herself.  Condon makes it clear that Kinsey and Clara’s bond goes beyond all the whims, contradictions and idiosyncrasies of their sexual desires. The film works well as a non-judgemental study of an open relationship.  

With its timely subject matter and finely etched relationships, it is a shame then that Kinsey so rigorously enslaves itself to the conventions of the biopic. Films that capture the complexity of great men on the silver screen are as rare as honest men in Washington. The nature of cinema is to simplify rather than to complicate and, as every film exec will tell you, stories need ‘an arc’, which culminates in a ‘realisation’.  Condon’s previous film, Gods and Monsters, worked so well because it was a biopic that was not overly concerned with biography. Unfortunately, Kinsey is a biopic that, like its hero, becomes bogged down in detail.

Condon valiantly attempts to freshen up his biopic by approaching Kinsey through his ‘sex history’ in intercut, black and white interviews with his assistants. A fine device if it were not packaged with lush, amber-lit and ultimately poorly realised flashbacks from Kinsey’s childhood. Condon suffers from the biopic mania for overblown parents. If Hollywood is to be believed great men and women tend to be created by domineering or abusive parents. So it is no surprise to learn Kinsey’s father was a methodist bigot, nor is it a shock when in the second act Kinsey is summoned home to confront his ailing father. There is also the obligatory ‘why does nobody understand me?’ scene. But of all the irritating conventions of the biopic, the hand-wringing scene is the worst. Remember the moment when Russell Crowe finally finds approval in A Beautiful Mind and all the professors give him pens? That is the hand-wringing scene at its most vomit-inducing.

In life, Kinsey died from heart failure, a social and scientific pariah vilified on all sides by the hypocrites. In film, Condon opts for a series of hand-wringing scenes. along with a scene in a forest (which does not bear mentioning), Lynn Redgrave is wheeled out of her retirement to deliver a monologue to Kinsey that reminds him his life has been meaningful. It seems Condon wants to have his biographical cake and eat it: Kinsey must be both misunderstood genius and fully appreciated saint. But, if Gods and Monsters is anything to go by, this thoroughly compromised and syrupy ending is not his own: at a guess, the development execs reminded condon that lives in the movies do not end in death but in a ‘realisation’. Perhaps someone told them the genre was myopic not biopic.
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