FOCUS FEATURES (2019)
Director: Mimi Leder
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Notorious RBG. Advocate of women’s right, gender equality and the Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Inspirational and trail-blazing are just a few descriptives that could easily be bestowed upon Ginsburg and On the Basis of Sex couldn’t have come at a more vital time. Here, we get the story of Ginsburg before she is the Ginsberg – portrayed by Felicity Jones, the movie finds Ginsburg as a struggling young attorney, a new mother and struggling in her fight for women’s rights in the 1970’s leading to her first major victory on the road to blasting open the doors against discrimination.
A legal biopic sounds a bit stuffy, certainly one set in the crusty old days of the 70s. The main issue facing On the Basis of Sex was crafting an engaging narrative whilst giving us a central character to gravitate towards and also introducing the audience to a well-known figure before they were…well…known. The movie gets most of it right, Felicity Jones gives us a strong yet vulnerable Ginsberg but her dodgy New York accent lets her down. Anchored by a supporting cast including Armie Hammer as Ruth’s loving husband Marty, Cailee Spaeny as daughter Jane and Justin Theroux as the scene-chewing wolf Mel…Wulf, On the Basis of Sex certainly holds up in terms of performances. The narrative is fine and solid for the most part and the seeds are sewn for Ginsburg to go on and become the pioneer we know her as. The rights that Ginsburg fights for are complex and vital and the movie does OK with explaining the vastness of them but nothing is really given a thorough examination – which is a shame as this could have been prime territory to really delve into the sexism issues of the time (of course these are discussed in the final third, however, it all comes across as a bit educative rather than revelatory). We do see firsthand the obstacles Ginsberg initially faces - being one of only nine female attorneys in a male-dominated University and going toe-to-toe with the sexist Dean - and for what we get, they are effective in portraying the ridiculously sexist challenges that were the norm at the time.
Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, also. As is the case with biopics, characters are given prophetic or fist-pumping lines – the Oscar reel moments – which in itself is just fine, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy moments like that, I just wish they were slightly more subtle in their overall delivery (that includes you cameraman and composer!).
On the Basis of Sex is an overall solid affair. It never jumps off the screen in inspiring fashion nor does it ever really drag. It’s just a good movie with good performances with a wonderful woman behind it all. The Academy Award-nominated documentary RBG further explores Ginsburg’s achievements in a far more intricate and concentrated way whereas On the Basis of Sex is a fluffier account, a more crowd-pleasing affair but one that is still deserving of your time if only to find out more about its subject.
May 10th 2019