Regular readers will already know that I consider Liam Neeson's eponymous performance in Kinsey to be one of the screen treats of the year, shamefully overlooked by Academy members because of their anxieties about the film's controversial theme. At a time when Hollywood film-makers from Martin Scorsese to Paul Verhoeven are bemoaning Tinseltown's unwillingness to address "adult" subjects, Neeson and writer/director Bill Condon have proven that grown-up cinema still has an important place in the mainstream movie market. Indeed, despite some concessions towards the simplifications of the biopic format, Kinsey remains admirably forthright in its investigation of a nerdy academic who started out cataloguing the life cycles of gall wasps and wound up teaching Americans to talk openly about sex.
Having endured the virginal embarrassment of his own disastrous wedding night, the tweedy college professor Alfred Kinsey ("Prok" to his friends) sets out to ensure that none of his students is similarly left in the dark by establishing an academic forum for "marital instruction". Overwhelmed by the popularity of his classes, Kinsey soon finds himself thrust into the limelight as the nation's premier "sexologist" - the documentor of a thousand hidden truths that lay bare the diversity of "normal" human sexuality. Using an interview technique that enables respondents to talk openly about their most private experiences (and which Condon skilfully weaves into the discourse of his own narrative), Kinsey becomes a media star for "proving" that most men have enjoyed much more than missionary-position marital intercourse. But when he argues that the same is true of women, Kinsey is accused of amorality and anti-Americanism, and faces having his funding revoked.
As the gangly, awkward Prok, Neeson brilliantly captures the professional empathy and personal detachment that apparently made Kinsey such a great scientist and such an infuriating husband. Released from the shackles of an oppressively strait-laced upbringing (John Lithgow is both hilarious and heartbreaking as Prok's guilt-stricken preacher father), Kinsey begins by exploring his own latent bisexuality and ends up methodically mutilating himself as his research drives him towards something approaching madness. But while Neeson's initially engaging character becomes an ever more obsessive and alienating presence, Laura Linney ensures that the film retains a familiar human heart. By allowing us to see Kinsey through the affectionate eyes of his wife and soulmate, she frees Neeson from the dramatic constraints of turning Prok into a palatably "sympathetic" hero.
To his great credit, Condon (who directed the equally even-handed Gods and Monsters) refuses to sidestep the most problematic elements of Kinsey's legacy, squarely addressing the accusation that he ignored moral imperatives in his quest for scientific "truth". In one key scene, Kinsey is angrily abandoned by an outraged associate who refuses to take testimony from a child-molesting omniphile; Prok, meanwhile, continues to observe his subject with a wholly inappropriate lack of judgement. Nor does the film conclude (as did some of Kinsey's disciples) that sex and commitment are unconnected. Rather, it reminds us of the imprisoning emotional chaos so often wreaked in the name of "free love" and suggesting that monogamy may yet remain beneficially aspirational, even if it is not inherently "natural". While the religious right may demonise Kinsey for reviving the spectre of Sodom and Gomorrah, Condon acknowledges both the triumphs and failures of his ground-breaking research, offering an entertainingly open-eyed overview of this flawed and contentious American icon.
Also dragging dark secrets out of the closet this week is Boogeyman, an a la carte offering of overcooked fairy-tale horror in which a cupboard-phobic young man (Barry Watson) is terrorised by a monster that ate his father. Produced by the Evil Dead creators Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert for their populist Ghost House label, Boogeyman is shamelessly adolescent fare that relies far too heavily on the ear-shattering power of things going BANG to make up for the fact that there's not much happening in the script department. Doors SLAM, windows SMASH, nail guns BLAM and everyone JUMPS - at least, they do the first three or four times. After that, your mind starts wandering on to pressing questions such as "Where are all those atmospheric Japanese and Korean influences the producers promised us?" and "Is The Grudge 2 going to suck as badly as this?" Fans of Hideo Nakata's eerie Ringu and Dark Water movies will spot a few perfunctory set-piece rip-offs, but it's Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street that hangs over the whole noisy affair like a waking dream, reminding us of how much better this has all been done before.