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‘Kinsey’ is a special biopic

Liam Neeson stars as the human sexuality specialist. By John Hartl

The final image in Bill Condon’s “Kinsey” is of two porcupines very carefully preparing for sex.

It’s an apt metaphor for a biographical drama that takes a warily warm approach to the life of Alfred Kinsey, the biologist whose studies of human sexuality became unlikely best-sellers in repressed post-war America. The writer-director, Bill Condon, who won an Oscar for writing “Gods and Monsters,” does a beautifully balanced job of establishing the context for what turned out to be a cultural revolution.

Condon seems especially keen on emphasizing what Kinsey and his readers were rebelling against. The movie sometimes plays like a slightly exaggerated study of the puritanical hairstyles and dismal dress codes that seemed designed to make people appear unattractive during the World War II era. The contrast between the characters’ passions and their prim wardrobes becomes a reliable source of comic relief.

Laura Linney, playing Kinsey’s wife, Clara, looks so drab and sexless that she might as well be wearing a burqua in some scenes. No wonder her husband nicknames her “Mac.” Still, Linney responds to the role with such vitality that she transcends the physical limitations that Clara imposes on herself, turning her into a force of nature who can’t be stopped once she decides on a marriage partner.

Liam Neeson’s Kinsey is at first awkward and sincere, “a little churchy,” as Clara puts it, though he eventually becomes hectoring and relentless — and almost as concerned with measurements and frequencies as John Carradine’s sex-mad scientist in Woody Allen’s 1972 satire, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).” It’s a tribute to Neeson’s self-control that he manages to keep a straight face during some of Kinsey’s wilder outbursts.

At other times, Neeson recalls Montgomery Clift’s pained, thoughtful obsessiveness in John Huston’s 1962 biography, “Freud,” which tells a similar tale of a scientist who faces mockery and condemnation for his insistence on the crucial role that sex plays in human development.

Somehow Neeson manages to capture the absurd and tragic dimensions of the character without making him laughable or maudlin. Equally impressive are Peter Sarsgaard, as a bisexual research assistant who seduces both Kinsey and his wife, and a nearly unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave, whose late appearance recalls the moving finale of “Gods and Monsters.” (Another holdover from that film, composer Carter Burwell, contributes another excellent score.)

“Kinsey” covers several decades, going back to Kinsey’s childhood, when he left home in rebellion against a brutally puritanical and sexist father (John Lithgow), and moving into the nervous 1950s, when Kinsey’s work became too notorious for public figures to become sponsors or even to associate with him.

Condon mostly sticks to the facts, as reported in Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s 1999 biography, “Sex the Measure of All Things: The Life of Alfred C. Kinsey.” He cherry-picks phrases and incidents and even lab animals from the book (including those porcupines), deftly using them to create an exceptional biopic with its own confident sense of authenticity.