Review: On the Basis of Sex (2018)

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

Directed by: Mimi Leder | 120 minutes | drama, biography | Actors: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz, Francis X. McCarthy, Ben Carlson, Ronald Guttman, Wendy Crewson, John Ralston

In right-wing circles in the US they can drink her blood, but with students Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a kind of superheroine. They walk around in T-shirts with lyrics like ‘You Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth’ and share the most tantalizing of her statements via social media. For those who don’t know her: Ginsburg is an American lawyer who has been one of the nine judges on the United States Supreme Court since 1993. She was only the second woman in history to make it this far. Ginsburg has made it her life’s work to eliminate gender-based discrimination from US law. That it was no easy feat, given that she grew up in a time when pretty much the only right a woman had was the kitchen sink, is one of the reasons Ginsburg’s life story is so interesting to filmmakers. In Hollywood people are already fond of the loner who stands up and goes to war against the established order, and if that loner is also a now 86-year-old, tiny, void female (as we saw in the successful documentary ‘RBG ‘ from 2018) then we can well imagine that a biographical film about the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been in the pipeline since 2013. For about four years it seemed that Nathalie Portman would take on the lead role, but because there was no progress, she dropped out. And so we don’t see her but British Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the film ‘On the Basis of Sex’ (2018).

The film, from director Mimi Leder (who left films behind for eighteen years to focus on television work after ‘The Peacemaker’ (1997), ‘Deep Impact’ (1998) and ‘Pay It Forward’ (2000) among others) , begins in 1956 when Ruth begins her law studies at Harvard Law School. As one of only nine women among as many as 500 men, she doesn’t have it easy. She is ignored when she raises her finger to answer a question and Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) bluntly asks her why she takes the place where a man could have sat. Fortunately, in Marty (Armie Hammer) she has a very understanding husband, who supports her unconditionally. But disaster strikes when Marty becomes seriously ill and his young life hangs by a thread. While he is undergoing heavy radiation treatments, Ruth attends his classes in addition to her own (Marty is a year above her) and takes care of their two-year-old daughter. Fortunately, he recovers and after he has completed his studies (specialization: tax law) he is offered a job in New York. Ruth and Jane move with him. Ruth had hoped to take her scholarship from Harvard to Columbia to complete her studies, but Griswold puts a stop to that. However, she does not let herself be fooled and completes her studies in New York. However, finding a job as a lawyer is no easy task for a woman in 1959, whether you were top of the class or not. The series of rejections is extremely frustrating, so she takes a job as a law professor at Rutgers Law School, teaching Gender Discrimination in Law students.

We jump back in time to 1970, the time when the African-American civil rights movement made itself heard loud and clear. Can the fight for women’s rights tie in with this? It is Marty who points Ruth to the case of Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a single man who had to hire a nurse to care for his ailing mother so that he could continue to work on his own. However, he may not deduct the costs for this from the tax because this authority does not recognize him (as an unmarried man) as the entitled party. Reverse discrimination based on gender. Sensing her chance, Ruth enlists the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) to support her, but Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of that organization has little faith in it. It’s only when Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), a civil rights giant and an idol of Ruth, steps in that the case around Moritz begins to look like something.

The screenplay of ‘On the Basis of Sex’ was written by newcomer Daniel Stiepleman, not coincidentally a cousin of the real Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who herself also appears in a cameo at the end). You can therefore assume that Mrs Ginsburg herself has also given her approval. The film is rock solid and follows the established path and that is also the biggest problem of ‘On the Basis of Sex’: this film is so good and colors so neatly within the lines that it becomes boring. That has not so much to do with the rather dry cost of laws, regulations, jurisprudence and precedents, because that’s what Stiepleman and Leder happily hold back. The dullness lies mainly in the prosaic approach, the sober way of playing by Jones and the seriousness with which things are presented. Her work is Ruth Bader Ginsburg seriousness, that is clear. However, in ‘RBG’ we also saw another side of her personality: some humorous and naughty traits. They are sorely missed in this biopic. Hammer gets a little more leeway to add some zest to his role and shines more than Jones (even though he doesn’t have the charm the real Marty Ginsburg had). The rest of the cast is decent, although two names stand out. Kathy Bates only has a small role, but makes the most of those few minutes in the picture. The young Cailee Spaeny also stands out in the role of the feisty teenage daughter Jane, who represents the future generation for whom Ruth does it all. She will grow up in a world where girls can be whatever they want and make a fist in a male-dominated world.

‘On the Basis of Sex’ is a solid biography that very dutifully follows the rules of the genre. Jones plays her part very seriously, leaving little room for lighthearted moments. Also missing is a sting, a stimulus that holds the tension arc. Of course we’re working towards a victory speech (it’s all in the history books after all), and it knows how to touch us best. But if you really want to know more about Ruth and Marty, you better watch the documentary ‘RBG’.

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