At Harvard Law, women have only been accepted into the school for the last six years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) remains determined to make her mark. In spite of graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg is unable to find a position with a law firm because of her gender. She takes a job as a professor but is eventually approached with a tax law case that she believes could revolutionise gender-based rights in the US Constitution.
With its early 2019 release in the US, status as both legal drama and uplifting true life story, and having a previous Academy Award nominee in its lead, Felicity Jones, ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is so obviously baiting for Oscar attention that, frankly, it’s a little embarrassing (though that didn’t stop ‘Green Book’). The reason for its being ignored this awards season is apparent – as a movie, it is just ok and honestly, the trailblazer that is Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserved a better movie.
What’s interesting is that this is actually the second film based on the Supreme Court Justice’s life to come around this season. The documentary ‘RBG’ has been having much greater success, earning wide critical acclaim and award nominations, including an Oscar nod for Best Documentary Feature.
Having led a blockbuster in ‘Rogue One’, broken our hearts in ‘The Theory of Everything’, and made us bawl our eyes out in ‘A Monster Calls’, Jones makes for a steadfast, inspiring, compelling Ginsburg. It’s not quite a career-best but the performance is exemplary of her talent – one knows she has more to offer and a greater performance to come in the future. Armie Hammer is also excellent as Ruth’s husband, Martin. However, while Jones and Hammer are individually very good, they don’t really share the chemistry you’d expect of a married couple.
The film does a good job at capturing the revolutionary period of late 1950s to early 70s America. Hearing what laws used to exist in the period is both interesting and appalling. The addition of Cailee Spaeny (‘Pacific Rim: Uprising) as Ruth’s bratty but pragmatic teenage daughter Jane also adds another point of intrigue to the story.
Full of motivational lines and life lessons – “changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change”… “First change people’s minds, then change the law”… “The law won’t be changed by the weather of the day but the climate of the era” – are nice but one can’t help but cringe slightly at their obviousness and sentimentality. Such expressions culminate in a court-set finale that is twee and pompous, full of its own importance, or, to take a poetic quote as the movie so enjoys doing, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
Generally speaking, ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is an enjoyable biopic on the basis of the aforementioned positive points, but it’s nothing extraordinary.