Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mimi Leder
Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Chris Mulkey, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Wendy Crewson.
Last year we saw the excellent documentary RBG, a comprehensive and insightful look at the life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the diminutive lawyer and champion of human rights and gender equality who became the second woman ever appointed to the bench of the US Supreme Court. Ginsburg, who graduated at the top of her class at Columbia, is a feminist icon and the “rock star” of the legal profession, and is also the voice of reason on an increasingly right wing and conservative bench. This well meaning biopic covers some of the same territory as the documentary but comes across as a little dry and prosaic by comparison.
On The Basis Of Sex follows her early struggles to be taken seriously by the legal profession. It opens in 1956 when Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones, from Rogue One, etc) was one of a handful of women admitted to study law at Harvard. The school’s overtly sexist dean (Sam Waterston, best known for his work in the long running tv series Law & Order) is sceptical of them, suggesting that they have taken the place that should have gone to a man. During her first couple of years Ginsburg had to work twice as hard to constantly prove herself, especially after her supportive and loyal husband Martin (Armie Hammer) was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The film explores in some depth her loving relationship with Martin, a tax attorney with a top New York law firm, and her prickly relationship with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny, from Bad Times At The El Royale, etc) herself a passionate, outspoken and rebellious advocate of certain feminist causes. The film follows her years as a teacher and all the way up to her first court case, when she takes on the case of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey, from Gotti, etc), a single man who is being refused a tax exemption for caring for his invalid mother on the basis of his gender and an obscure tax law. Ginsburg recognises the potential legal ramifications of a successful appeal in this landmark case, and with the aid of Martin and Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), a passionate lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, she takes on the case. Her successful arguments in this case led to several other precedent-setting cases based on gender inequality, and paved the way for her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court.
On The Basis Of Sex deals with some big themes like gender, the law, equality, the patriarchal nature of society in the 50s and 60s when women were expected to remain at home. The script has been written by first time writer Daniel Stiepleman, who just happens to be Ginsburg’s nephew, so there is a personal investment in the drama. The film is a little predictable and melodramatic in nature.
This marks the return to the big screen for director Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact, etc) after nearly two decades working in television, and her handling of the material is fairly conventional and straight forward in style, pedestrian and lacks any great sense of urgency. There are no great courtroom pyrotechnics or trial sequences that show off her legal skills.
Jones is very good in the role, capturing the pint-sized Ginsburg’s steely determination to prove herself while constantly being underestimated by the men in power around her, her dogged pursuit of justice and equality under the law, and her feisty, steely quality. Hammer has a solid presence and brings warmth, charm and empathy to his performance. Kathy Bates has a small but showy role as veteran lawyer and activist Dorothy Kenyon, while Waterston is perfectly cast as the officious and casually misogynistic Dean Griswold.
Costume designer Isis Mussenden (The Chronicles Of Narnia, etc) captures the era perfectly, and she has recreated many of Ginsburg power fashion outfits. On The Basis Of Sex covers the early years of Ginsburg and her rise through the legal profession, but ultimately it lacks the depth and insight of the documentary RBG and doesn’t leave the same lasting impression on the audience.