On the Basis of Sex is a timely reminder of all that US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accomplished on the long, winding road towards gender equality, and why it still matters today.
We open on the Harvard victory song, extolling the triumphs of the “men” in attendance. It is 1956, the sixth year since women were admitted to Harvard Law School, and Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one of only nine women in a class of nearly 500.
On the Basis of Sex has been labelled “RBG: The early years” in reference to not only its (superior) documentary counterpart “RBG” but also the filmmaker’s decision to focus on Ginsburg’s pre-Supreme Court career.
Ginsburg’s story is gripping enough that any film running through her achievements, however perfunctorily, will contain a passable dramatic arc. We see her raise a family, graduate law school top of her class and care for husband Marty as he fights cancer. We squirm as she’s denied roles at NY law firms for being “too emotional,” and how – to the benefit of society – it led to Ginsburg taking on a role at Rutgers University. But the bulk of the movie centres around the landmark case that paved the way for outlawing discrimination “on the basis of sex”.
Jones is convincing as RBG (her Brooklyn accent less-so) and an underutilised Armie Hammer gives a touching performance. They get decent support from Kathy Bates as feminist, suffragette and lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux channelling Roger Sterling as Mel Wulf, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Some of the most poignant scenes feature Ginsburg’s daughter (Cailee Spaeny), whose take on feminism is more confrontational: women’s liberation “is not a movement if everyone’s sitting”.
So all perfectly serviceable – but it needed more: more personality, more history, more drama. Ginsburg’s relationship with Marty is under-explored: clearly he was extraordinarily supportive, but what toll did his sacrifices – given he was a lawyer himself – take? The director’s approach is conventional to the point of cliché: montages drive the narrative forward, a typewriter taps out “on the basis of sex” across the screen. It’s not a bad film, it just doesn’t take the risks deserving of an iconoclast like Ginsberg.