On the Basis of Sex Review
Felicity Jones stars as the Notorious RBG in this biopic of the legal trailblazer
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most iconic and polarising figures in US politics, so in some ways it’s surprising it’s taken until now, 26 years into her reign as a Supreme Court Justice, to have her life immortalised on the big screen. Then again, considering today’s political climate, this is perhaps a very 2019 film indeed.On the Basis of Sex opens with Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) cycling across Harvard’s campus, where she’ll soon be told in no uncertain terms by the Dean (an infuriatingly smarmy Sam Waterstone) that a women like her has no place studying law. Of course, as history and present-day politics tells us, not only did Bader Ginsburg study law, but she rose to the top of the ranks and became one of the most prominent and respected legal figures in the world. As this film tells us, there were no easy steps for a young woman from Brooklyn to rise in a male-dominated world.
The film is fairly paint-by-numbers in its cues, following the narrative arc of many a biopic that’s come before it; what marks it up, however, is an abundance of character, making it a watchable and admiring tribute to RBG
Director Mimi Leder is perhaps best known for her big-screen action films, but her work on The West Wing and ER demonstrated a penchant for enhancing narratives with character and beautiful filmmaking, which is precisely what’s on show here. The film is fairly paint-by-numbers in its cues, following the narrative arc of many a biopic that’s come before it; what marks On the Basis of Sex up, however, is an abundance of character, making it a watchable and admiring tribute to RBG. Dotted with tropes and clichés, it thankfully finds plenty of opportunity to flesh out the characters of RBG and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), making them both realistic and sympathetic.
Though not the most daring or visually spectacular film, On the Basis of Sex does a great job evoking an era of shadowy misogyny. It’s an evocative drama that hits all the right emotional and narrative notes, buoyed by an engaging and perfectly feisty performance by Jones. The real life Bader Ginsburg is a well known character with identifiable traits and characteristics, and Jones’s focussed and determined focus befits her subject perfectly.
The shame, perhaps, is that there’s nothing particularly ground breaking in this film about such a ground breaking person. Though it does a good job of explaining the complex ins and outs of the case that defined a career and a generation – in which Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) was discriminated against on the basis of his gender – and translating them to an interesting, relatively fast-paced legal drama, there’s nothing particularly gripping or climactic about the film. Which is surprising, considering the remarkable story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career.
The shame perhaps is that there’s nothing particularly ground breaking in this film about such a ground breaking person
Even one of the most emotional and tense moments of the film – in which Jones’s character is momentarily awe-struck and tongue-tied before she addresses the court for her seminal case – has been cited by the real RBG as perhaps the only moment of pure poetic licence in a film that doggedly sticks to the facts.
An occasionally touching, perfectly watchable and relatively true-to-life legal drama that portrays the inspiring life of an iconic figure, this is a somewhat formulaic yet enjoyable film that largely shines thanks to an emotive and engaging lead performance.
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