Film Review: On The Basis of Sex

This biopic upon the early life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg aims high and means well but proves too strained and clunky, with Felicity Jones’ central performance lost in contrived speechifying.

A movie about the 85-year-old Associate Justice of the US Supreme was always going to happen, with a glamourous star to boot (originally it was to be Natalie Portman). But the casting still feels wrong, no matter how hard Felicity tries, and once again it doesn’t help that the subject of this biographical drama has had such a distinctly uncinematic life: after all, she’s spent most of her time endlessly poring over books and then tearing strips off conservative blokes.

Directed by the prolific Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman (RBG’s nephew), this begins with Jones’ Ruth on her first day at Harvard law school, as she walks through a sea of men and a ‘fight song’ (‘Ten Thousand Men Of Harvard’) plays on the soundtrack. It’s an obvious scene and a little deceptive (she’d already had a storied academic career beforehand), and then a slightly hammy Sam Waterston turns up as Dean Erwin Griswold to welcome the crowd and ask them to “consider what it means to be a Harvard man”.

Ginsberg is already married to Martin (Armie Hammer), another Harvard student, and they have a baby daughter, and when Martin is taken seriously ill it falls to her to pursue her studies while attending all his classes and insisting that he complete his degree because he’s going to damn well live. This requires a lot of hurrying through the facts and squashing of the chronology, and while Jones and Hammer are nice, they nevertheless struggle with the inspirational sentiment.

Sexist circumstances mean she must finish her studies at Columbia and, of course, afterwards she can’t find work, and eventually takes up at Rutgers Law School to teach a class called ‘The Law And Sex Discrimination’. We then suddenly skim forward to 1970, with Ruth addressing a carefully inclusive class of students with plenty of movie-ish dialogue to recite, Martin a cancer survivor, a young son we barely get to know and Jane (Cailee Spaeny), a pouty teenage daughter in a miniskirt, who’s taking the feminist battles to the streets and loves to fight with her Mom. At one point they argue about the unethical legal procedures in To Kill A Mockingbird (as you do), Jane yells something about the need to question everything, and she then rushes to her room to play (what else?) The Moody Blues classic Question.

The real crux here, however, is what transpires when Ruth discovers what’s going on in the life of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a middle-aged and never-married Denver native who was denied a tax deduction when he hired a nurse to care for his ailing mother. When Ruth realises that she can argue that men are always the ones who, by law, are assumed to be the workers and breadwinners, she starts mounting a case in the Supreme Court that looks set to open multiple cans of worms, and if there are somehow any ghastly Men’s Rights Activists in the audience then they can breathe a sigh of pathetic relief knowing that this film isn’t just about women.

The real Ginsburg – who naturally appears briefly at the end to offer her stamp of approval, and no need for spoilers – deserved something better than this calculated and manipulative effort, and anyone interested in her life and achievements should instead seek out RBG, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary from last year. And perhaps the mightiest problem here, an all-too-common biopic issue, is that her life has been important and inspirational indeed, and that would shine through beautifully if only the direction and scripting wasn’t trying so awfully hard and laying it on so thick. Objection!

On The Basis Of Sex (M) is in cinemas from February 7

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