I really want to like On The Basis of Sex. Not just because Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is a truly inspirational woman who deserves a decent film, but also because we’re seeing this one with a couple of friends, and it’s much more fun to enthuse collectively than it is to disparage. I’ve read a few lacklustre reviews, so I’m far from certain I’ll get what I want. But the cinema-gods are smiling down on us tonight, and I’m pleased to report this is a cracking biopic.
Okay, so Daniel Stiepelman’s script isn’t especially innovative or radical; this is a traditional telling. But that’s no bad thing: the writing is tight and concise, intimate and focused. Given that Ginsburg’s activism is of the quiet variety – all research and paperwork and detailed knowledge of tax laws – and her marriage was harmonious and free from high drama, it’s no mean feat to have made such a compelling movie from her tale. The shocks are all in the blatant sexism; it’s hard to believe this is only (really) a few years ago. Thank goddess for RGB and other pioneers.
Mimi Leder’s subtle direction takes us with Ginsburg from her 1956 enrolment in Harvard Law School up to her landmark 1970 case, where she forces the court to concede that gender discrimination is actually a thing. In this instance, it’s a tax code penalising a man: he can’t claim tax relief for the nurse he employs to care for his mother while he’s at work; if he were a woman (or, indeed, married), he would however qualify. After years of suffering discrimination on the basis of sex – unable to get a job as a practising lawyer, lumbered with a professorship that isn’t what she really wants – this is Ginsburg’s chance to nudge the floodgates. Once gender discrimination has a legal precedent, other laws can be challenged.
Felicity Jones is made for this part, I think, effortlessly conveying a surface of dignity and composure but a core of steel and fire. Ginsburg must surely be delighted with the way she’s been portrayed. Armie Hammer is also disarming, as Ginsburg’s devoted husband, Martin, as supportive a partner as anyone could wish for. And Cailee Spaeny (last seen by B&B in the criminally overlooked Bad Times at the El Royale: not a single awards nomination – really?) as the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane, surely has a bright future ahead? She’s arresting, even in this small role.
It’s a charming film, and an important story. It’s scary to think how recent this all is, and how hard-won the rights we now enjoy. There were no women’s toilets at Harvard Law School when RBG went there; there were laws – actual laws – that stated women couldn’t e.g. fly aeroplanes.
How far we’ve come.