VOD film review: On The Basis of Sex
Matthew Turner | On 04, Jul 2019
Director: Mimi Leder
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor
Watch On The Basis of Sex online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Deep Impact director Mimi Leder makes an overdue return to the big screen with this biopic of the early life and career of future Supreme Court Justice (and meme-inspiring cult figure) Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film makes an ideal companion piece to last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary RBG.
The film begins in 1956, with Ruth (Felicity Jones) becoming one of just nine women in a class of more than 500 men entering Harvard Law School, while also raising a baby daughter with enlightened tax lawyer husband Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Ruth faces discrimination and sexism throughout her student days (a humiliating dinner given by Sam Waterston’s Dean is just the beginning) but eventually graduates joint first in her class, only to then be rejected by every New York law firm.
However, Ruth perseveres, eventually finding work as a law professor and becoming involved with the ACLU, where she meets legal boss Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). Then, Marty brings her a tax case that proves to be exactly what she’s looking for – a case of discrimination on the basis of sex, in which an unmarried male caregiver (Chris Mulkey as Charles Moritz) is denied a tax deduction the IRS had intended only for women.
The resolution of that case set Ruth on her future path and the film rightly treats it as her defining moment, punctuated with all the punch-the-air moments you’d expect. There’s a particularly nice irony in that one of the pieces of evidence produced by the opposition – a list of discriminatory legislation that would have to be changed if Ruth wins her case – ends up providing a useful checklist for what to go after next. The film chooses to end with the Mortiz case, but it leaves you wanting an RBG mini-series, in which she smashes the patriarchy with a different case each week.
With a script written by Ginsburg’s own nephew (Daniel Stiepleman), the film was never going to be anything other than straightforwardly reverential in tone. As such, it does the job and ticks all the right boxes, but it frequently feels clichéd. Some attempts are made at a wider argument in the contrast between Ruth’s fight and her now grown-up daughter Jane’s (Cailee Spaeny) more overt activism, but they feel perfunctory at best.
As for the performances, Jones is unfortunately miscast, but she makes a decent fist of it, giving an earnest portrayal that’s very good at suggesting righteous anger being bottled up for future use. However, there’s no trace of either RBG’s Jewishness or her mischievous sense of humour, both of which are in abundance in the documentary. On a similar note, Jones’ American accent is fine, but she doesn’t sound like anything like the real life RBG.
In fairness, the supporting cast are excellent. Hammer is especially good as Marty (whose too-good-to-be-true nature is backed up by the documentary) and Theroux provides a bit of spark as Wulf, while Waterston gives the film its equivalent of a hissable villain. There’s also a typically entertaining turn from Kathy Bates as civil rights leader Dorothy Kenyon, while Mulkey is touching in an understated performance as Moritz. As for what RBG herself makes of the movie, one can assume she approves, given her brief appearance as her present-day self at the end.
On the Basis of Sex is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.