On the Basis of Sex Review
With the relatively recent crossover of feminism into mainstream culture, there seems no better time for biopic about one the most influential women in the world today. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or RBG as she’s come to be known) is the star of Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, a film that explores Bader Ginsburg’s (Felicity Jones) early career and the groundbreaking legal cases which started her on track to what would one day lead to her seat on the Supreme Court.
As biopics go, On the Basis of Sex certainly has its roots very much in RBG’s true life story - the film’s screenwriter is Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. Naturally, one has to imagine that certain elements of the film are heightened for dramatic effect, but it seems to highlight all the defining moments in RBG’s early life with husband Marty (Armie Hammer), her struggle to become a lawyer and the case which bought gender discrimination laws to the attention of the American courtrooms in the 1970's.
Leder's film opens on a sea of blue and grey suits, nestled within the iconic landscape of the Harvard campus. About a head shorter, and almost lost in the throng of students, Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg emerges after a few minutes. She is the sole woman in a crowd of men, a fact confirmed shortly after the opening scene as the Law School Dean proudly announces that this year (1956), they had taken on nine female students. Setting the tone for the rest of the film, the Dean (a wonderfully mean performance from Sam Waterston) then asks the female students to explain why they deserve to be enrolled on the course in the place of men who could have otherwise been there.
On the Basis of Sex continues in this way, from Ruth's struggle to find a job at a law firm to the unorthodox split in housework and child rearing between herself and husband Marty. The film meanders through it's first half, but picks up considerably once Ruth is presented with her first gender discrimination case.
Being set almost entirely in the courtroom (or the Ginsburg's living room/courtroom), the latter half lends itself to tension perhaps more naturally than the first half and succeeds in producing some genuinely nail biting moments. There's a fear that the film might become bogged down in legal jargon, but Leder does a tight job of simplifying Charles Mortiz's appeal. Using Ruth's time in the college classroom is an excellent way of explaining some of the more complicated laws in place without it feeling like exposition. Showing Ruth in her element in class also makes us connect with her more - her natural skills at teaching law are as valuable as her ability to practice it.
Most of the film is formulaic in it's presentation of Ruth vs the very male dominated legal industry - more often than not, Ruth is physically pleading her case across a table to a panel of older, white men. Subtlety is not the endgame here. However, Ruth's interactions with daughter June (Cailee Spaeny) explore the differing opinions of various feminist groups of the time and are a welcome reminder that women are not one homogeneous group which all behave and feel the same way. June attends rallies, looks up to Gloria Steinem and, initially at least, believes her mother to be incapable of changing a system from the inside. The explorations how one does change an already established system - do we change minds first or the law first - is actually one of the most interesting themes throughout Leder's film.
Despite commendable scenes in the latter half of the film, there are certain narrative plot points (Marty’s cancer, Ruth leaving Harvard for Columbia) which are initially presented as huge obstacles, yet their resolution is not given any screen time. In a film which stretches itself very thinly over it’s two hour run time, this leads to a bizarre pacing issue where little seems to happen for quite some time whilst important story-lines are left unresolved.
Felicity Jones as Ruth is also a bit of an odd choice - she does her best but she never really feels authentic as the Brooklyn native RBG really is. Jones is at her best, like the film, on the stand in the courtroom. Though the domestic scenes add layers to Ruth's like, this isn't where Jones shines the brightest. Armie Hammer is excellent as husband Marty, the character feels slightly underwritten but the reality is that this film isn't actually his story so this feels like a non-issue.
On the Basis of Sex is a solid film, but it never goes further than that. It's not particularly ground-breaking in it's ideas or it's style and it never strays too far from the comfortable realm of film-making. It's neither daring, nor is it meek - it merely hangs in the middle. The woman it presents to us is an icon, a beacon of light in a world that keeps getting darker - it's a shame that it couldn't replicate that brightness on the screen.