Doctor Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) became one of the most controversial figures of the nineteen-forties and -fifties after publishing his research, but he started out as the son of a fire and brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) who instilled in him and his congregation a repressed attitude towards sexual relations. All through his adolescence Kinsey felt tremendous guilt about masturbation, but never had any sexual experiences other than that until he was married. His wife was Clara, known as Mac (Laura Linney), one of his biology students, and their honeymoon night was a disaster, with both of them virgins and neither of them knowing the correct way to approach each other. This motivated Kinsey into putting aside his research into wasps and turning his attentions to people...
Kinsey is still a controversial figure today, just as likely to provoke admiration about his open-mindedness and pioneering work as he is to receive fierce criticism for apparently promoting lifestyles outside of faithful, heterosexual marriage. Bill Condon wrote as well as directed this biography of the man, and for the most part rather plainly and matter-of-factly presents him in the pioneering mould, but not shying away from his personal experimentations in his own relationships which can seem misguided at best, and harmful at worst. Condon is careful to build up a picture of a inhibited time in the United States all the better to impress on the audience the huge impact Kinsey's books had on the nation, and render a portrait of a necessary point in society's evolution.
In fact, Kinsey here is a rebel, as we witness early on when he rejects his father as a "prig" and refuses to go into engineering as he wished; he has always had a love of the countryside and nature which he wanted to pursue, hence his studying of biology which brought him to Indiana University. He eventually realises that his wasp research may win him academic plaudits, but nobody but a handful of people read his results, and he is disturbed at the sex education on offer as part of the hygeine class which emphasises the nasty diseases you can catch through not being careful who you sleep with, i.e. anyone outside of your marriage partner. Pre-marital sex is hardly acknowledged to exist.
And so Kinsey begins work leading to the publication of his 1948 book, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. He does this by recruiting a small staff and instructing them in the right way to interview subjects by putting them at their ease to usher them into talking about their sex lives. One of his staff is Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), who accompanies Kinsey on his field trips to the likes of gay bars and asking the patrons about their predilections, which stimulates them both into a homosexual relationship with each other. Not wanting to keep secrets from his wife, Kinsey tells her all about it, and here seems to be the main problem with his personality: he regards sex as a clinical act, set apart from emotions. Naturally, Mac has trouble adapting. The cast are uniformly excellent, but Neeson's portayal of a blinkered academic manages to be endearing enough to command respect.
The film is not without humour however, and is not afraid to poke fun at the doctor's naivety as well as throwing in a few good jokes (the interviewee who says he had sex "with horse"). That said, there's something self-satisfied about Kinsey's group that is punctured when their progressive attitudes move even more out of step with the times with the publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. Now Kinsey finds himself persecuted and his previous popularity disappears in a typical rise and fall storyline. Kinsey was always non-judgemental in his work, and in a judgemental era this is seen as forgiving perversion and dangerous subversion. Condon is not quite as non-judgemental, and accepts his protagonist's flaws while making them obvious, but his conclusion seems to be the simplistic but well-intentioned, if the sex doesn't hurt anyone, then where's the harm? Which is something Kinsey would have probably approved of. Music by Carter Burwell.