Movie Review: “Kinsey” is a perceptive look at sex and social mores

3 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“Does wearing high heels make you sterile?” That is a question posed by a young woman visiting the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) in Bill Condon’s intelligent new film. In exposing the enormous ignorance about sex in the 1950s, “Kinsey” often reminds us of how far we haven’t come.

Kinsey begins as a zoologists collecting wasps, switching to sexuality after some problems of his own and discovering the ignorance of others. With his assistants (most notably Peter Sarsgaard), he interviews thousands of subjects on their habits. “The gap between what we think people do and what they actually do is enormous,” he says of his findings, and publishes his hugely popular and controversial report. The film’s Kinsey is, of course, riddled with personal problems, including a detachment from the messier emotions associated with sex and an occasionally tumultuous relationship with his equally open-minded wife (Laura Linney).

Most biographical films (or, more slangily, biopics), despite the brilliance and originality of their subject, fall into a predictable three act structure. “Kinsey” proves that even the best examples of the genre aren’t immune from the conventions of Early Rise and Struggle Against Prejudice, followed by Big Popular Success and then Later Crisis and Self-Doubt, usually with a happy and redeeming epilogue (see “A Beautiful Mind”). Bonus points if a character yells “It’s not worth it anymore!” or the film is being protested by some political group for over- or lack of attention to some aspect of the subject’s character.

“Kinsey” fits almost all of these clichés (including some noisily protesting right wingers) yet somehow manages to stay fresh, mostly because of its unusual subject and outstanding acting. Neeson’s Kinsey may be a scientific and social pioneer, but he’s also a socially awkward geek. Many of the interview scenes are surprisingly funny in their extreme datedness. In the last third of the film, some of the conventions begin to audibly creak, but the outstanding late appearance by Lynn Redgrave as an interview subject ties things up nicely.

The groups protesting the film probably don’t realize the irony of their actions. The most explicit material all deals directly with Kinsey’s research, and the present-day reaction precisely mirrors Kinsey’s critics in the film. A highly perceptive and surprisingly enjoyable film by itself, “Kinsey” becomes even more interesting in today’s social atmosphere.

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