Kinsey and Finding Neverland, differences in tone and direction notwithstanding, make for an almost too convenient double bill. Both take place in heavily repressed societies (America in the 1940s and Victorian England, respectively), where the unassuming, even mild main characters shake things up through their works, are tagged rebels and, in the long run of history, become liberators. Kinsey is, naturally, about notorious sex studies pioneer Alfred Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson), the Indiana university professor who switched, mid-research, from surveying gall wasps to cataloging the sexual dos and don'ts of the American public. The picture is probably the more provocative of the two, not only due to the issue's built-in titillation, but also because its subject's hero status is to this day less than unanimous -- in fact, in many of the so-called "red states," his name possibly still evokes more gasps than Osama Bin Laden's.
Crusader or perv? Through his 1948 interviews, which culminated in the 1953 publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey was hailed and vilified for prodding the tender subject of sex, yet his style, the film argues, was never less than coolly observational, scrubbed of prurience. Writer-director Bill Condon, shooting through an unabashedly contemporary filter, grounds the character's inquiring thrust in early rebellion (his dour minister father, played by John Lithgow, is introduced during an anti-zipper sermon), so that his work, unwaveringly supported by wife Clara (Laura Linney, a welcome addition to any film), sports a shake-up, anti-oppression bent underneath the sheen of scientific detachment. Kinsey was nothing if not a hands-on researcher, though, and in his encouragement of experimentation (Peter Sarsgaard, as the most prominent of his assistants, freely, carnally ping-pongs between the doctor and the missus) there are the seeds of a revolution still two decades away.
Though Condon (whose previous work, Gods and Monsters, focused on another transgressor, gay filmmaker James Whale) celebrates Kinsey's anti-prudery, he refuses to fully embrace his psychology and gives audiences an easy escape hatch by bringing in a true-blue perv (William Sandler at his most scurrilous) for characters to walk out on. In a way, though, the director's critique of the doctor's detachment (and his rare sensitivity to the emotional side-effects of such a revolution), gives the film its most interesting aspects, and rescues it from reverential hagiography. Far from haloed anti-prude knight, Neeson's Kinsey has more than a hint of the hectoring pedant in him, so dedicated to his cause that he thinks nothing of having his members of his research team swap partners in order to record the results. The sexual act should be purified of society-bound notions of shame, sin and perversity, but should it be divorced as well from human feelings?
By all means, let's talk about sex. But does the public want to hear? Judging from the audience titters and grumbles that accompanied the movie's matter-of-fact blue talk, the level of acceptance has scarcely increased since the unmellowed '40s. Oddly, it's the movie's shortcomings rather than its strengths that shed the most light into the societal enslavement of sex -- wittily, intelligently adventurous, Kinsey is in the end too tasteful to open any serious sexual discussion. It talks the talk, but in order to walk the walk (and truly challenge the shackles), the sex on the screen would have to be stripped of its stigma and made real: in other words, we'd have to actually see Linney fucking Neeson, and Neeson fucking Saarsgard, and Saarsgard fucking Linney. If that type of radicalism was not accomplished in the age of Last Tango in Paris, it is unthinkable today -- in fact, with Bush II in for another term, the very idea would land a project not in the porno bin but in the fantasy session.
"Everybody's sin is nobody's sin. Everybody's crime is no crime at all," intones Kinsey, and Kinsey. By contrast, Finding Neverland's dictum is considerably fuzzier and less threatening: "Just believe." The hero is Scottish playwright J.M. Berrie (Johnny Depp), who went on to pen Peter Pan though, as the film opens in 1903 London, is slumming with a flop, much to the chagrin of his frosty wife (Radha Mitchell) and his gruff theater manager (Dustin Hoffman). Inspiration begins to hit when, during one of his park walks, he meets widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons, one of whom, Peter (Freddie Highmore), was so affected by his father's death that all his childlike creativity all but froze into premature solemnity. In no time Berrie has become almost part of the family, inspiring much gossip and the stately wrath of Sylvia's wealthy mother (a formidable Julie Christie), though all is forgiven when Peter Pan opens to thunderous success.
The film is Miramax in genteel, Oscar-grabbing Anglophile mode (Enchanted April, Shakespeare in Love), shuffling fact to make for uplifting blend of an artist's life and art -- visions of the fantastic spring out of the everyday, though the academic director, Marc Forster (Monster's Ball), is no Terry Gilliam. Berrie's eccentricity, meek as it is (flying kites, playing with spoons during dinner), is his personal escape from the corset of Victorianism, conveyed in Depp's own expressive gentleness -- he achieves a rapport of chaste, fragile yearning with Winslet, and his scenes with Highmore suggest a mutual awareness of loss (of youth, of loved ones) that can often be intensely moving. Again, however, everything is tied up too neatly. It's easy to draw connections between the two films: Kinsey seeks to liberate the flesh while Berrie aims to free the spirit, yet both of them remain ultimately circumscribed in their own star vehicles, the troubling depths of sex and fantasy smoothed out for comfy audience consumption.