Film Review – On The Basis Of Sex (2019)

Equal rights campaigner Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an overnight sensation at over 80. Her biography, Notorious RBG, was published in 2015, lifting her profile and that nickname skywards. It was only a matter of time before films about her made it onto the screen and two of them have arrived in quick succession. Documentary RBG opened in the UK at the start of the year, tracing her remarkable career while becoming an unexpected pop icon. Now this week sees the arrival of On The Basis Of Sex, a bio-pic concentrating on her earlier years as both a student and then lawyer.

Sounds dry? Not when you consider this is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in the US who stands out in all manner of ways, from her campaigning stance on equality and her legal legacy, to her being regarded as a liberal (she was a Clinton appointment) and her recent battles with ill health. She’s indefatigable and always has been. As a student, she was one of only three female students in her year – at a time when there was no bathroom for women at the college (remember Hidden Figures?). Marriage to brilliant tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) sees Ruth (Felicity Jones) struggling to find a job after a glittering academic career and, despite being a professor, she finds herself teaching rather than practicing law. Everything changes with the arrival of a legal case, a man who is his mother’s sole carer but not allowed to claim tax relief for professional help because he’s male. That right is reserved for women. It’s unfair on the basis of sex.

It’s a mantra trotted out regularly throughout the film – perhaps too regularly, because it’s immediately apparent, even to anybody who knows nothing about Ginsburg, that this is all about sexual equality. The case takes place in the 70s – only about 45 years ago – yet the decade sounds unexpectedly backwards. Women, for example, have to apply for credit cards in their husband’s name. The vexed question of whether sex/gender are one and the same thing keeps being thrown at Ginsburg – she has an answer, but not one that ever seems to fully satisfy judges – and most of the second part of the film is taken up with the court hearing. A beautifully, logically argued one it is as well, one that makes for thoughtful, if not necessarily exciting, watching. She is, after all, advocating things we take for granted today so the fact that she is challenged – and appallingly patronized by men – comes as something of a wake-up call to the audience.

It’s a worthy film, one that knows it has right on its side, yet it’s hard to get away from the thought that it had Awards Bait written all over it. It ticks a lot of boxes – equality, justice, civil rights – and has two attractive leads in the shape of Jones and Hammer, who give strong, if not spectacular performances. There’s some interesting support as well: Sam Waterston who, seemingly unable to shake off the shadow of all those years in Law And Order, plays the dinosaur-like Dean of Harvard and Kathy Bates as Ginsburg’s favourite female lawyer, who she quotes ad infinitum. And the precisely crafted script makes the legalese unexpectedly absorbing. But none of this has helped in the film’s quest for awards because, at its heart, it’s old-fashioned, doing nothing that makes it stand out from the competition. Good but not good enough.

You’ll learn from it, you’ll wriggle with discomfort at some of the attitudes on display and you’ll smile – if not more – at the way Ruth counter punches against them. You’ll admire her too. But you won’t have the level of emotional involvement you get from a truly great film. It’s an interesting story, well told – and one that leaves you with the feeling that the Notorious RBG deserves just a little bit more.

Freda Cooper | [rating=3]

Bio-pic, drama | UK, 22 February (2019) | EntertainmentOne | Dir. Mimi Leder | Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates and Cailee Spaeny.