Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine



Written and directed by Bill Condon; director of photography, Frederick Elmes

Starring Liam Neeson (Alfred C. Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara McMillen), Chris O’Donnell (Wardell Pomeroy), Peter Sarsgaard (Clyde Martin), Timothy Hutton (Paul Gebhard), John Lithgow (Alfred Seguine Kinsey)

Faced with recounting the life of the renowned American sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, any filmmaker would pause to consider which aspect of the man’s life and work would be most likely to make a contemporary audience squirm. The candour with which he addressed human sexuality? Or the often mundane slog of fieldwork laced with sober analysis? Sex may no longer be a taboo in modern cinema, but a love of statistics is still a love that dares not speak its name.

It is a tribute to Bill Condon’s biopic that, though the revelatory nature of what Kinsey and his team told a still-uptight America about its habits and peccadilloes is rightfully addressed, the scientific urge to discover the truth—and thereby rip away the dark curtains of myth and superstition—becomes the film’s leitmotif.

Liam Neeson brings to the eponymous role the right mixture of professorial gaucheness and messianic zeal. His childhood has been blighted by a priggish father (portrayed with hammy gusto by John Lithgow), Alfred Sr., who is seen near the start of the film lecturing to a cowed congregation about the multiplying opportunities for sin the modern world is bringing. Rebelling against this suffocating presence, Kinsey chooses to study biology rather than the more transparently utilitarian path of engineering. Yet as we see, Prok (as Professor Kinsey is known fondly among his students) embraces his research with almost a parody of the Protestant work ethic—accumulating over 1 million specimens of his chosen subject, the gall wasp, over decades of scouring the continent . Such exhaustive collecting does, however, teach Kinsey a valuable lesson—as each gall wasp is unique, shifting its characteristics radically from generation to generation, diversity emerges as the underlying pattern in nature. Condon doesn’t hammer home the point that the law of diversity applies as much to creatures with two legs as to those with six.

Yet it is as much his personal experiences that prompt Kinsey’s later crusade as his entomological expertise. Despite striking her as being somewhat 'churchy’, Kinsey succeeds in persuading the independent-minded Clara McMillen (nicknamed “Mac” and played strongly by Laura Linney) to become his wife. But the fragile union quickly threatens to break down as the couple—both virgins on their wedding night—are unable to consummate the marriage. Ever practical, Kinsey decides to take their problem to a doctor. Following a minor operation, the couple is soon enjoying the kind of matrimonial bliss that transposes the Kama Sutra to the Indiana prairies.

This discovery—that simple advice and medical expertise can bring happiness—is a turning point in Kinsey’s career. Dismayed by the kind of moralising that passes for advice in his university—sex education is presented as moral hygiene—he begins a series of lectures to a select portion of the student body on the actual facts of life.

Shocked by the lack of knowledge not just among his young students but in society as a whole, Kinsey resolves to bring some light into the dark cave of Western sexuality. And just as he did with the gall wasp, Kinsey and his team crisscross the United States to study the human specimen. Their labours resulted in groundbreaking publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (1953) and landed Kinsey on the cover of Time magazine.

And as they discover that 'standard deviation’ is not merely a mathematical term, Kinsey and his inner circle, realise that achieving sexual liberation brings turmoil as well as elation. Kinsey and Mac’s own matrimonial bonds are tested as Kinsey’s closest acolyte, Clyde Martin (the excellent Peter Sarsgaard, recently seen in Shattered Glass) joins the marriage to form a ménage a trois. In this sense, the film delivers a fascinating account of the advance guard of the sexual revolution. These pioneers move from being uncomfortable about talking about masturbation to becoming somewhat jaded practitioners of wife-swapping and group sex. But, as a cuckolded Martin rages at his mentor, sex is always more than just a matter of friction.

The price of freedom and the never-ending struggle to extract funding from squeamish institutions—principally the Rockefeller Foundation—develop as plangent undertones to the later stages of the picture. Kinsey, fuelled by barbiturates to maintain a workaholic schedule, becomes a gaunt prophet, unappreciated in his own land. Yet the disconnect between Kinsey’s circle’s unrelenting honesty and the parched morality of the times often provokes laughter as well as pathos. Indeed, the film flatters its audience by assuming they share the same curiosity, the same open-mindedness.

Nevertheless, one can’t help wondering in our supposedly more emancipated era whether the subject matter of this engaging, informative, and frequently amusing film has prevented it from getting the kind of recognition—in the Oscar nominations, for example—that it really deserves.

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