20 Feb 2019

Review - On the Basis of Sex

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 20 February 2019

On the Basis of Sex tells of the early years of gender-equality campaigner – and later Supreme Court Judge – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and stars Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not only one of the most famous judges in America – possibly the world.  She’s also a leading voice of liberal America, with a string of victories to her name, mostly in the area of gender discrimination.

On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex Photo: Focus Features

Ginsburg has already been the subject of a well-received documentary last year, RBG.  Now her early years are played out in On the Basis of Sex.

We meet Ginsburg arriving at Harvard - one of the very few women allowed in those hallowed halls back in 1956, where she runs into the usual sneering sexists.

Will the future Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg triumph over her adversaries? 

Hmm, if I wanted to keep the suspense up, perhaps I shouldn’t have called her “the future Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg”. I should have just called her Ruthy, like her husband Marty.

One slightly surprising thing about On the Basis of Sex is how important Marty – played by Armie Hammer – was in Ginsburg's life. 

He was not only a staunch early feminist, but he was warm, outgoing and engaging in a way his rather serious wife was not.

Marty pushed Ginsburg to her later successes when nobody else would. But Ginsburg was the one with the intellectual fire-power – summa cum laude at university, then going on to fire up her own pupils as an academic.

The point being that, despite Ginsburg's achievements, the doors were often closed on her finding work as an actual attorney.

Playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Felicity Jones, who does her best in the teeth of rather unlikely casting. 

Unlike the actor she replaced – Natalie Portman – she’s neither Jewish nor American. And despite her efforts, it’s hard to see her as a driven intellectual, out to right 200 years of American wrongs.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t so much a story as a legal argument, ticking off its points - first the discrimination Ginsburg faced at Harvard, then trying to topple the myriad unfair laws standing in the way of women’s civil rights in the Sixties and Seventies.

The narrative doesn’t rest on a single barnstorming legal case where Ginsburg triumphs over the patriarchy. 

The turning point occurs when Ginsburg and Marty take advantage of a legal loophole, featuring an unexpected target of discrimination.

Since most of us are aware that many of the laws discriminating against women have been overturned – on paper, if not always in practice – the conclusion of On the Basis of Sex is a little foregone. 

Director Mimi Leder and her attractive cast are therefore not asking “Did it happen?” but “How did it happen?”

And often the “hows” are rather abstruse points of law, turning on whether the male care-giver had married before, and the precise wording of the Constitution.

On the Basis of Sex is a worthy rendition of the early struggles of an important American figure.  But it’s an account rather than a story. And the place for an account is usually in a documentary.

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