Sex in the Country
Kinsey reminds us that, as a nation, we in the U.S. are ashamed of sex. Even though set primarily in the 1940s, the movie is approached in a way that highlights how uncomfortable sexual freedom can feel to current audiences. We're invited to chuckle at unfounded and outdated fears about sex, yet we're confronted with scenarios that still feel generally unconventional today. The film points out how far we've come and, at the same time, how we haven't come as far as we think.
That this movie could be made in the first place provides considerable evidence for how much we've progressed. Its frank approach to the subject matter directly reflects that of its real-life subject: Professor Alfred C. Kinsey. Kinsey's work in the study of human sexual behavior and practices was groundbreaking because of the scientific, as opposed to superstitious, process he used. In the film, Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is shown strictly handling the study with a staunch, factual coldness. He demands his assistants follow suit. The movie then goes on to show various sexual activities with much detachment. Viewed in our time when the facts of sex have been so thoroughly explored, none of what happens here can really shock us, and the movie knows it.
Nevertheless, although the idea of emotionally detached sex is no longer a new concept, its depiction here demonstrates how it can still feel foreign. Kinsey and his associates spend much of the movie engaging in several forms of sexual exploration, yet toward the end of the movie, the tendency to attach meaning to these actions becomes unpreventable. The characters' discomfort leading to this conclusion acts as a release for the audience as well. Before the movie is over, statements about the elusive nature of "love," in contrast to sex, are unavoidably made.
Kinsey doesn't transition into this ending well. What it posits about love goes against what the movie has spent so much time in demonstrating, i.e., the scientific belief system of Kinsey and the good that came from his work. It gives a corny wrap-up to an otherwise intriguing look at the human inclination of establishing and breaking, in all manners of imaginative ways, rules about sex in society. For most of the movie, we're not sure what love's got to do with it. The final statement then comes as a surprising, out-of-place bow to traditional thinking, almost as a concession to an audience's need for a tidy moral.
But then, even for all its blank-faced portrayals of sexual experimentation and the pioneering of its acceptance, Kinsey stays wrapped in a traditional skin. As a biopic of the professor, it's disappointingly of-the-mold with its rise-fall-and-redemption character arc, very strong lead performances (from Neeson and leading lady Laura Linney), some utilization of flashbacks, and lead male character suffering in the third act as wife stands strongly by.
However, Kinsey deserves more attention for two other reasons. First, it's an excellent reminder of how human sexuality cannot be fully controlled. Kinsey's work showed us that while everyone believed the nation was pure on the surface, the real story was shaded in many additional and unexpected colors. The more human sexuality -- a driving force naturally at odds with society's attempts to contain it --is denied, the more dangerous it becomes.
Second, the film emerges as a thoughtful depiction of Kinsey's work. As an exposure-builder for Kinsey and his objective methods, it's daring and noble. But as a movie, those effective squirm-inducing moments, which smartly and confidently challenge an audience, are at odds with a structure working to put that same audience at ease. It's a liberal movie with a conservative presentation; no doubt the film's middle ground will most easily win praise from a general audience, but one wonders if it was the best way to make a movie about such an outside-the-box thinker as Professor Kinsey.
(Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures and rated "R" for pervasive sexual content, including graphic images and descriptions.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.