Wardell Pomeroy. Herman Wells. Alan Gregg. Paul Gebhard. Clyde Martin. Clara McMillen. These are the kind of names -- and, more or less, the kind of people -- you would expect to find in the Social Register. But because of Alfred Kinsey -- a name that could have made the Register as well -- they were all part of the first wave of soldiers in America's still-unsettled 20th-century sexual revolution.
In his highly intelligent, splendidly made Kinsey, writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) tells two stories with an intriguing nexus: At the University of Indiana, the Harvard-educated biologist Alfred Kinsey (b. 1894), whose malevolent professor/father was a moralizing lay preacher, conducts a meticulous study of gall wasps that eventually leads him to explore human sexuality; and across early 20th-century America, which could then learn about sex only from books that taught "morality disguised as fact," a naïve population begins to awaken to the "diversity" of human sexual behavior and desire.
Kinsey isn't a thorough biography of its eponymous figure. For that, as always, you'll have to read a book. Instead, Condon offers an unflinching interpretation of his enigmatic central character: Kinsey's interest in sex grew from his own life experience (as innovative work usually does), and his myriad findings, while perhaps not always statistically accurate, have turned out to be more than sufficiently true. His greatest discovery might have been the indelible fact that people want to talk about sex, if only to know they're not alone in their practices.
The Kinsey we engage in Condon's drama is both a product and a victim of his passion for science. He's a virgin on his wedding night, and when he and Clara (Laura Linney) consummate their marriage, the intercourse is too painful to last very long. (We later learn that his penis is large and her hymen is tight, which leads their doctor to tell Clara, "It's a wonder you didn't pass out.") But the Kinseys overcome this problem, have three children (who talk about sex freely at the dinner table), and eventually conduct research that leads to the landmark 1948 book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (followed soon after by its Human Female companion).
If this aperçu sounds slightly dry, then my work here is done, for Kinsey isn't a very sexy film. As sociology, it ambles through the panoply of human sexual behavior without judgment (at least from Kinsey); and as drama, it's about a man who, while fully capable of giving the people close to him a very tender form of love (on his terms -- the only terms any of us know), nonetheless separated love from sex because, unlike sex, he couldn't quantify it.
Kinsey (Liam Neeson) doesn't act upon his own homosexual desires until middle age, when he has an affair with Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), one of three younger men who work with him in his research (Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton portray the other two). Clyde later has intercourse with Clara, and all together they form a libertine enclave of sexually voracious scientists (and their occasionally diffident wives) who practice what they study, sometimes in groups of more than two, and sometimes in front of their own cameras (because, said Kinsey, scientists need to study how the body functions during sex).
Condon doesn't shy away from Kinsey's sexual proclivities, but neither does he try to parse the thorny question (at least in Kinsey's day) of his sexual orientation. He never gives the impression that Kinsey merely "experimented" with homosexuality; it's clear that he always had same-sex desire. This choice is somewhat brave in our current "declare yourself" age, for Condon seems to speak more in the voice of Kinsey's time, so the world that his characters inhabit feels eerily on target.
Kinsey naturally has to engage in a lot of speculation about how things happened, and Condon sometimes adopts a cool formality that takes a while to embrace. But finally, it works well if you accept that he's trying to know the unknowable, and that it's really anyone's guess about how, say, a young researcher seduces his married boss, and then his boss' wife.
Was Kinsey, in his research, working through his own anxieties? Of course he was: With something as personal as sex, how could he not? (And anyway, aren't we all?) But was he a sexual addict and a masochist as well as a scientist? Kinsey made no judgments about what he learned, a posture that led him to an especially bizarre case study of a man -- part pansexual, part child molester -- whose behavior threatened to undermine Kinsey's reputation. Condon touches lightly upon this and other controversial elements of Kinsey's life and work, but such discretion isn't hagiography: The arc of Kinsey's life is all there to discover in a fabric of dialogue and drama that challenges you to think and talk.
The acting in Kinsey is never less than fine and occasionally quite moving, particularly the luminous Linney and the malleable Sarsgaard. And while Condon could probably have cast someone better for his lead, Neeson manages a few transcendent sparks while still allowing the somnolent monotone of his screen persona to convey Condon's vision of Kinsey: a taciturn man and a passionate scientist who taught people to talk about sex.