Hot on the heels of RBG, the Oscar nominated documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is director Mimi Leder’s biopic which focuses on the challenges of Ginsburg’s early career and the first sex discrimination case that she argued in court in 1971. This landmark case changed the direction of Ginsburg’s professional life and launched her lifelong constitutional commitment to gender equality in America.
From the opening scene, set in 1956, the young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is depicted as a minority —one of the few female law students enrolled at Harvard Law School amid an identical mass of dark-suited males. She is consistently made to feel grateful for the opportunity, despite being the smartest in her year. At a dinner with the Dean of the School (Sam Waterston), the female undergraduates are asked to justify why they are “occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.” She endures further sexism when, after graduation, no New York law firm will hire her with one encounter questioning her ability as, “a woman, a mother and a Jew to boot” and another telling her that theirs is a close-knit firm and wives get jealous.
Ginsburg eventually finds work as a law professor, but she aspires to using the judiciary to fight for equality. When her tax lawyer husband, Marty, played by a genial Armie Hammer, comes across a case of gender discrimination against a man, they decide to take it on.
With a screenplay written by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, the drama gives a unique — and affectionate— portrait of the Ginsburgs’ marriage and shows how the sexual discrimination Ruth experienced outside of the marital home was in sharp contrast to the equality within it. Observing this loving, supportive and complementary partnership is one of the film’s strengths.
Once it moves to explore the lawsuit itself, it tends to be weighed down by technical, strategic, legalese debate which, at times, makes it difficult to follow. But the film is also constrained by its lead. Felicity Jones gives a reasonable performance, yet ultimately lacks depth and fails to capture any of Ginsburg’s dynamism and confidence.
Refreshingly, however, On the Basis of Sex does explore some of the contrasting feminist arguments of the day, notably in clashes between Ruth and her teenage daughter, Jane, who sees street protests as a more effective tool for social change than the statute book.
Despite the film’s credible efforts, its protagonist lacks the charisma and influence to carry it. For that, turn to the real RBG.
On the Basis of Sex is released in the UK from 22 February