On The Basis of Sex

Jacob Richardson | 20/02/2019

A fun and uplifting, if superficial, take on Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s formative years.


Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) is a dedicated law student at Harvard Law School; not just undertaking her own classes (of which she is one of the first ever female students to be allowed to participate), but also taking classes for her sick husband Martin (Armie Hammer). When Martin is hired, two years later, at a firm in New York, Ruth petitions Harvard Law School Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) to allow her to finish her Harvard law degree at Columbia, but he denies her request. This is the first in a series of denials Ruth experiences, which tend to categorise her experience also of trying to find a job in New York. Ruth eventually has to settle for a teaching position, much to her disappointment. In 1970, Martin brings a tax law case to Ruth’s attention; a case where a Denver man was denied a tax deduction for hiring a carer, on the basis that the law at that time specifically limited the deduction to women. Ruth identifies that the case has the potential to start a revolution of overturning laws discriminating on the basis of sex, and she takes it on as her first case in a court of law.


Following hot on the heels of the documentary RBG, the presence of this movie once again affirms the interest in, and entertainment provided by, Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s story. While undoubtedly dramatised in the extreme to create this feel good biopic, On The Basis of Sex nevertheless creates an atmosphere of contemplation, where one is forced to look upon equality of the sexes as both a historical and current issue.


The message never overshadows the story, however, and that is down to the performances of our two leads. As her supportive husband Martin, Hammer isn’t particularly challenged. Effectively just having to stand their as a supportive and attractive mannequin, Hammer manages to bring a little bit of fire to the role, particularly in confrontations with all-round asshole Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux). But it is really in Felicity Jones’ performance that we get the meat of the story, and the reason why this film is worth watching.


Jones is fierce, intelligent and passionate as Ruth. She manages to strike a balance between the lack of confidence necessary to convey the impossibility of surmounting the rigged system, and the determination, drive and self-belief required to personify a person who managed to do just that.


In the end, the key issue of the film is a sense of ‘not enough’. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old, and was the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States of America. She has been on that court for 25 years. Nevertheless, this film, for better or worse, focuses solely on her first case. Perhaps it is a testament to the engaging nature of this piece that makes us long for more on this giant of history, but it also makes the movie oddly unsatisfying in its conclusion.


A shiny, superficial take on the early years of RBG that is nevertheless enjoyable and uplifting.