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Review: 'Kinsey' gripping look at sex, people

Neeson, Linney lead terrific film

By Paul Clinton

Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey in "Kinsey."
Liam Neeson
Laura Linney
Alfred C. Kinsey

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- "Kinsey" is a brutally honest, uncompromising and nonjudgmental look at a man who irrevocably changed American culture: sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey, who published "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" in the late '40s and early '50s.

After his years of elaborate interviews, which he called "sex histories," Kinsey's books revealed that what society thought people did behind the bedroom door, and what they actually did, were vastly different.

Kinsey's conclusion -- that each person's sexual make-up is unique, and therefore the word "normal" isn't relevant when dealing with human sexuality (there is only "common" or "rare" behavior) -- had people frothing at the mouth in the 1940s, and continues to drive many into vein-popping outrage in 2004. (Witness the protests against this film.)

"Kinsey" is the second time that writer/director Bill Condon has tackled a biographical film about a controversial man whose work and sex life were intertwined. In "Gods and Monsters," (starring Ian McKellan), he created a sensitive portrait of gay filmmaker James Whale. Now, he's taken on the much, much larger subject of Kinsey, who lived a life of controversy on a gigantic scale.

Condon frames this complex story beautifully. Using scenes in which Kinsey's researchers are taking their boss through his own sexual history allows the director to flash back to Kinsey's early youth. This is where we meet his strict and repressive father, played in a well-calibrated performance by John Lithgow.

Condon then intertwines Kinsey's early scientific work, meeting his wife, and his awakening interest in sexual research through these interviews.

Brilliant -- and unsettling

It's a brilliant structure and allows the audience to be drawn into this story -- which, quite frankly, can be extremely unsettling at times.

Kinsey's unrelenting quest to explore sexual boundaries and the way he and his researchers got physically involved in the process can become amazingly uncomfortable for viewers. Even the most jaded moviegoer (and I count myself in that number) may squirm in their seat.

Kinsey's student and colleague, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard, left), has relationships with both Kinsey and Kinsey's wife Clara (Laura Linney).

Liam Neeson is nothing short of magnificent in the title role. This is the second time he's played a very complicated, and very driven, real-life man. The first, of course, was in the film "Schindler's List," for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. It is very likely that Oscar will once again come calling to honor this deeply layered and totally compelling performance.

The same can be said for Laura Linney, who plays Clara McMillen, the woman -- nicknamed "Mac" -- who became Kinsey's wife and lifelong research partner. Linney displays her astounding range in this role, which allows her to explore emotions ranging from delightful playfulness and humor to gut-wrenching anger and sorrow.

Both Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell, playing supporting roles as Kinsey's sex researchers Paul Gebhard and Wardell Pomeroy, give strong, well-grounded performances.

Not judgmental

But it's Peter Sarsgaard, playing the bisexual researcher Clyde Martin, whose performance stands out, and confirms that he's without doubt one of the best character actors of his generation.

Martin had sexual affairs with both Kinsey and his wife, and Sarsgaard plays those potentially difficult sex scenes -- one of which required full-frontal nudity -- with complete authority and a breathtaking honesty.

Ultimately Condon allows the audience to make their own judgments about this complicated man. The writer and director's "warts and all" approach to the life of the obsessive Kinsey, whose drive and single-mindedness could be maddening, is refreshing and highly satisfying dramatically.

This seems to be the year of the biographical film. Ray Charles' life was examined in the film "Ray," and the life of playwright James M. Barrie -- the man who created Peter Pan -- gets the treatment in "Finding Neverland." In the upcoming movie "The Aviator" the Hollywood years of the legendary Howard Hughes go under the microscope, Bobby Darin is profiled in "Beyond the Sea" and even Alexander the Great is getting the once over in "Alexander."

But none of them is as relevant today as the life story of Kinsey, the man whose study of human sexuality remains a part of society's still raging debate over what is moral or immoral, in regards to s-e-x. "Kinsey" does its subjects -- human, biological and psychological -- justice.

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