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Kinsey (2005) (DVD)

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  • Chris O'Donnell and Paul Gebhard received higher billing than Sarsgaard
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    3 Reviews
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      12.11.2005 21:55
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      A thought-nudging, provocative piece of filmmaking.

      Plot: Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Knsey (Liam Neeson) is a passionate but unremarkable academic. Until, that is, he turns from studying gall wasps to human sexual behaviour. His relationships with his wife (Laura Linney), father (John Lithgow) and protégé (Peter Sarsgaard) are jostled as he challenges his own sexual identity and explores America’s…

      Schlong. Willy. Penis. There’s an erect one in “Kinsey” – on a slide projected by Liam Neeson’s charismatic, boundary-pushing professor in a lecture on human sexual behaviour. Is this shocking? His pre-war audience certainly thinks so, And the fact that its presence is worth noting, even in this day and age, suggests our society isn’t taboo-free either. That the taboo revolves around a few inches of wrinkly skin that look angry when engorged (what a word) is both fascinating and absurd. Bill Condon’s deft biopic takes a long, hard look at a clear-eyed rationalist who finds such prudery ridiculous.

      But while Kinsey, as portrayed here, is both clinical and brilliant, Condon isn’t afraid to show the unpleasant repercussions of his remorselessly logical attitude to rumpy-pumpy. The writer/director is certainly supportive of ‘Prok’ – too supportive, according to critics of the still controversial sex researcher. But the Prof is still presented as the Mr Spock of sex. And sex, as most of us know, is not logical.

      We’re no doubt meant to admire this man. But as the story develops, it’s clear he’s far from infallible. Neeson’s Kinsey can be cold and heartless, and though Condon clearly believes that society is better for his groundbreaking research into what goes on beneath America’s covers – first published in the seminal (ho-ho) 1948 book “Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male” – he stops just short of making him a counter-cultural saint.

      Crucial in this is Neeson’s superbly dispassionate performance. Never asking for our sympathy, never drawing attention to himself, it’s his best work since playing another sexually voracious, morally confused character – Oskar Schindler. He’s ably supported by Laura Linney, lending her usuakl dignity and emotion to a role which somewhat undervalues her, while John Lithgow takes a character balancing precariously on the verge of caricature – Kinsey’s overbearing preacher father – and makes him both believable and affecting. The strongest supporting turn, however, comes from Peter Sarsgaard, who follows his quietly engrossing performances in “Garden State” and “Shattered Glass” with another understated dose of disillusioned male youth. Does any other young actor do simmering rage so well?

      Condon (“Gods And Monsters”) deftly conveys a great deal of information as he glides through the years, only slightly over-accelerating as Kinsey becomes a whipping-boy hate figure. And in exploring an earlier generation’s uptight attitude to sex, he also poses questions about our 21st century ideals. As Kinsey conducts one of his sex surveys with an omniphile (a truly chilling William Sadler), who cheerfully admits to a lifetime of sex with children and animals, Condon challenges us to outline the boundaries of our own sexual tolerance.

      The elegant, understated conclusion suggests that beyond tolerance and beyond sex, the greater value – and mystery – is love.

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        29.04.2005 23:24
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        I hadn’t really intended to write a review about Kinsey, honestly because it’s sometimes hard to know what to say about films that you feel hit the middle ground comfortably and strive for, but don’t quite grasp, excellence. But there is actually quite a bit to say about this interesting, occasionally challenging and eminently watchable film.

        Kinsey tells the story of famous sexual researcher Alfred Kinsey. In the 1950s, a time when oral sex was deemed something that would make you infertile, there were no existing studies of human sexual behaviour. What was “normal” simply wasn’t known; with the threat of social ostracism falling heavily on those who asked the questions, no-one had the information to provide the answers. A zoologist and keen collector of research, Kinsey interviewed literally thousands of men and women, and took their sexual histories to produce two books, one about sexual behaviour in the male, and a companion volume about the female. He went on to study such then taboo subjects as homosexuality (and indeed experimented himself) and still taboo subjects such as child molestation and bestiality. It’s a good thing, indeed, that Kinsey, as a film, pulls no punches about all the sides of the scientist’s research and personality; controversial statements about sex offenders and the actual levels of their offence are included.

        Liam Neeson’s performance as the driven scientist, beset with his own childhood sexual demons and obsessed with garnering respect for his achievements, is a pleasure to watch. He marries a warm, almost cheeky, witty, vibrant scientist with an innocent, troubled, confused man. How close a depiction this is to the actual Kinsey, I couldn’t say, but it seems accurate to derive such a personality from such research. From his fumbled attempts at intercourse with his new wife, to his latter-day fame and mantle as “the sex doctor”, it’s a measured and involving performance. He is more than ably complemented by the luminous Laura Linney, who seems almost wasted here, perhaps because sometimes it seemed like there was another film to be made from her point of view. Both leads are very aware of both the comic and tragic implications in their relationship, and there are indeed a few laughs (could you have a film about sex without them?), particularly in a certain scene involving a ruler… Their chemistry is moving and comfortable, and the film can be comfortably pinned on their shoulders.

        Adding to the mix is a veritable who’s who of past and present names. John Lithgow’s turn as Kinsey’s repressed, preacher-fanatic father is excellent, as is Peter Sarsgaard’s support as Kinsey’s protégé, Clyde Martin. His smooth delivery and matinee-idol looks, as well as his unsettlingly smug gaze, make him stand out amongst the team of Kinsey researches, including Timothy Hutton (his slicked hair and ‘tache reminiscent of the Jetsons’ Mr. Spaceley) and a perennially childlike Chris O’Donnell. Oliver Platt and Tim Curry pop up as portly academics to round off a solid cast.

        Bill Condon’s (Gods and Monsters) direction is variable. As both writer and director, certainly he brings the best out of his cast, and there are some beautiful vistas and cinematography. But the repeated montages as Kinsey works his way through interviewees or publicity sprees become a little tiresome as they seem to exist just to speed the film up. The map of volunteers giving their sexual history looks a little like a music video and seems to break the beautifully constructed aura of 1950s America, which is enhanced by a solid score and use of a little Cole Porter. At any rate, its not too distracting, but a little disappointing, and rather typical of the one great problem biopics seem to suffer from on a regular basis.

        Kinsey’s problem is that there’s a lifetime of fascinating detail to be mined in 2 hours. The attempt to cover all of Kinsey’s childhood in flashbacks during a sexual history interview makes the build-up to the predictable show-down with his father rather weaker than it should be – Kinsey begins to look a spoiled brat. Later on, the attempts to show that Kinsey didn’t quite shake off the legacy of his overbearing parent seem heavy-handed as a result. This would have made an excellent series, with more time being spent on both science and scientist. As it is, it’s a very workable compromise, but you can’t shake the fact that it IS a compromise. This is the whistle-stop tour, kids.

        Sensibly, Kinsey doesn’t dwell unnecessarily on sexual activity, the sensational factor of which would have rather trampled over both the examination of Kinsey as a person and the central message that we’re all different and what is normal is whatever we’re doing (as long as no-one’s getting hurt). There is obviously some nudity and sexual content, but the rating indicates the mostly and certainly dispassionately medical nature (apart from the near-gratuitous full frontals of Peter Sarsgaard).

        Really, whether you enjoy Kinsey or not depends on how much the fact that it’s a rushed, if solid, portrayal bothers you. It certainly has its excellent moments, but the central flaw of the film seems embodied in a particular volunteer candidate in the programme who attempts to do rather too much in 10 seconds… (kirstymack80, that one was for you :P)

        Certificate 15
        Runtime 118 minutes.

        Alex
        xxx

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          04.04.2005 19:28
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          • "Chris O'Donnell and Paul Gebhard received higher billing than Sarsgaard"

          More than fifty years after the publication of his two studies on sex Alfred C Kinsey is still able to cause controversy. Conservative Christian groups in America picketed writer-director Bill Condon's "Kinsey" on its release; ridiculously laying the blame for sexually transmitted diseases and pornography at his door. Kinsey simply documented what he found in his studies, and with it removed guilt and shame from a large number of people's lives. Although ideas of oral sex reducing fertility or masturbation causing epileptic attacks are laughable today, Condon appears to have chosen to concentrate on the more relevant issue of gender and sexuality. Apparently at the time of the books' publication the majority of the furore centred around what exactly heterosexuals were getting up to and how frequently, but this film seems to draw on the legacy Kinsey gave to homosexual men and women - especially through the final individual interviewed for Kinsey's research.

          As a biography "Kinsey" is a particularly effective in the way in which it delivers Prog (as Alfred Kinsey was known to his close friends) as a complex individual who made errors, had faults, and even seemed to blindly miss the obvious, whilst still being an inspirational individual whose quest for knowledge led him to profoundly influence how society thinks about sex. Unsurprisingly, if you consider his balanced portrayal of Oscar Schindler, Liam Neeson is perfect in the role.

          As a young man Neeson is completely believable as the bookish, loner who uses country hikes as a way to escape the oppressive influence of his puritanical father (forcefully played by John Lithgow). To the point that when his potential wife, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) asks for time to consider his proposal on the grounds that he is too "churchy" - a term which encompasses him admirably. But as marriage and with it sex enter the equation Neeson allows Kinsey to slowly mature in to a non-judgemental, strong, and confident man who is consumed by his desire to study an area of biology woefully devoid of research. Even in the moments where Kinsey is forced to consider his own sexuality, Neeson appears to display just the right amount of shyness and confusion.

          As his wife, Laura Linney is also brilliant. Kinsey was attracted by an intelligent and attractive woman who he wanted as his equal. Although "Mac", as Kinsey called her, is portrayed as a housewife she has the opportunity to act as a sounding board for him. Throughout the script she is carefree and has deeply emotional moments that never seem overblown. In fact, from her we are given the opportunity understand some of Kinsey's weaknesses.

          It is possibly surprisingly to find that in a film whose focus is sex, the relationship between Mac and Prog is particularly touching. Without declarations of undying love or sickening sentimentality Bill Condon's script allows the audience to be under no illusion that they are in love, and both Linney and Neeson highlight that through a familiarity and affection that is particularly disarming.

          Although Chris O'Donnell and Paul Gebhard receive higher billing as two of Kinsey's researchers, it is Peter Sarsgaard as Clyde who commands attention on screen. You can see why Kinsey and Clara would both be drawn to this attractive young man, who at various points creates an underlying and unspoken tension with both and whose confrontation with Kinsey highlights one of the weaknesses in Kinsey's research - it's hard not to let sex confuse love. For me this subtle and engaging performance makes him an actor I'm certainly going to watch out for in the future.

          Not only has Bill Condon coaxed some interesting performances from his actors, but he has also created a script that is witty, entertaining and filled with authentic emotional moments. We learn about Kinsey through his preparation of his interviewers for the infamous Kinsey questionnaires. As he gets them to interview him we are introduced to his earlier life through flashbacks which continue throughout the film giving it depth and maintaining interest. Interviews with various research subjects also allow snappy and entertaining dialogue to break up what could easily have become a dense and serious film.

          Unfortunately the film is not without fault though as some difficult areas do seem to be glossed over. For instance, at one stage Kinsey comes out with a comment about sexual acceptance that suggests an acceptance of paedophilia - although he claims later he was misquoted, the sentence does seem hard to justify. An attempt is made through an interview subject to clarify the matter, where Kinsey states that no one should be forced to do anything against their will; but it all feels a little too hurried to draw a line under the situation. At just over two hours, the film could have been extended, but at the same time I wonder if much more would have been achieved. After all, can two hours really sum up a man's life and his work?

          Where "Kinsey" succeeds as a biography is that you walk out of the cinema feeling inspired to find out more, yet aware of the man and the faults in his character and in his approach to his work. In highlighting these through an entertaining film with some excellent performances Bill Condon has created a film that is a welcome reminder of Kinsey's legacy. And, unlike those protesting Americans, I'm thankful for it; without Kinsey's demystification of sex we would probably have a higher number of sexually confused and guilt-ridden individuals, and a higher incidence of sexually transmitted diseases due to people's ignorance and concern about taboos.

          ___________________________________________

          It probably should be mentioned that Kinsey includes full frontal nudity and images of a sexual nature, but that all of the images appear in a dispassionate manner. I know that this may still put some people of seeing the film though.

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