Notorious RBG biopic gets a big thumbs up
The story of one woman’s crusade for gender equality unlucky to be overlooked for awards, says Paul Whitington
In the opening scenes of Mimi Leder's On The Basis Of Sex, a small, neat woman walks across the Harvard campus through a crowd of swaggering, Brylcreemed young men. It's 1956 and she's arrived at the hallowed university to study law, one of just nine females in a class of almost 500. Before the day is out, the faculty's Dean (Sam Waterston, who these days seems to specialise in playing smug, entitled baddies) will ask her what right she has to take the place of the man who would have gained admission otherwise.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) will end up rising to the very top of her profession, becoming a much loved (and loathed, depending on your politics) Supreme Court judge. But as this brisk and ambitious biopic makes clear, getting there wasn't easy. Ruth turns out to be a brilliant student, quick and thorough, and also finds love in the dashing shape of Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), an equally promising student who will later become a renowned tax lawyer. While still at college, they marry, have a daughter and when Marty falls ill, Ruth takes on his studies as well as her own.
She's a remarkable talent, but while Marty glides into a top job after graduation, Ruth finds, after enduring an excruciating series of job interviews, that no one wants to hire female lawyers. So, for a time, instead of practising, she teaches, lecturing students at Rutgers and wishing she was at the legal coalface. Then, in 1970, Marty brings to her attention a case that will change everything.
A Colorado man named Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) had to hire a nurse to help him look after his ailing mother at home, but has been denied a government grant routinely awarded to women and widows because he's unmarried, and a man. The usual victims of sexual discrimination are women, as Ruth knows all too well, but she and Marty cleverly realise that this case might be the Trojan Horse that undermines the whole notion of discrimination on the basis of sex.
To do this, she'll have to convince a dubious all-male panel of judges at the Colorado Court of Appeals, and faces condescension at every turn. The dyed-in-the-wool misogynists are one thing, but even Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the supposedly enlightened radical civil liberties lawyer and campaigner she teams up with, refuses to take Ruth seriously and undermines her constantly. Meanwhile, she'll have to overcome a bad case of stage fright if she's to deliver the killer constitutional speech that might just win this landmark case.
The real Bader Ginsburg is a force of nature, dubbed the Notorious RBG by her admirers: the only thing she found factually wrong about this biopic is the suggestion that she was momentarily stuck for words when she stood up to address the court for the first time. Not a bit of it, according to her.
Still, a little poetic licence is surely permissible in a film that does such a thorough job of explaining the complex legal ins and outs of the Moritz case. And if Jones' sparky RBG is the star of this show, On The Basis Of Sex is also the story of a truly exceptional couple.
Marty Ginsburg was a man ahead of his time, who supported his wife's ambitions and cooked, cleaned and looked after the kids while she began her conquest of the American legal system. Armie Hammer's Marty is a relaxed and reassuring background presence, a devoted husband who never seems for one moment to doubt his wife's ability to take on the entire legal system and win. Kathy Bates turns up as Dorothy Kenyon, a veteran attorney and campaigner who gives Ruth some stern advice, having tackled sexual discrimination herself and failed. And Jack Reynor plays an arrogant young lawyer in an ill-fitting suit who's determined to disprove the merits of Ruth's argument.
There's nothing particularly cinematic about Leder's film, which has the look of a decently made TV mini-series. But it evokes well an era when misogyny was so omnipresent, it went unnoticed, and celebrates the dogged heroism of a woman who changed the world.
Struggling heroically with RBG's Brooklyn twang, Felicity Jones gives an unfussy portrayal of a determined and unstoppable woman, whose success is partly due to her unshakable partnership with Marty. And in a year where such ordinary films as Bohemian Rhapsody and Black Panther have thrived in the awards season, On The Basis Of Sex is unlucky not to have earned a few Oscar nominations of its own.
Cold Pursuit (16, 119mins)
Hans Petter Moland’s English-language remake of his own Norwegian comic thriller In Order Of Disappearance has been the recipient of some very unwelcome pre-publicity courtesy of its star, Liam Neeson. The film was generally assumed to be just another dumbass revenge movie of the kind Neeson has come to specialise in. It does seem so to begin with: big Liam is Nels Coxman, a taciturn snow plough driver who keeps the icy roads of a ritzy Rocky Mountain ski resort open. When drug dealers murder his son, Nels silently vows to hunt down those responsible, and the bodies steadily mount as he closes in on a Denver-based crime boss. So far, so very predictable, but about half an hour in, Cold Pursuit becomes a grisly satire. The violence, though gory enough, has cartoonish overtones, as if Moland were daring you to try and take it seriously. It’s an amusing film, beautiful to look at and Neeson enjoys himself hugely.
Capernaum (15A, 126mins)
Nadine Labaki’s angry, funny Lebanese drama arrives with quite a reputation, having earned a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination, and a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes. Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), though only around 12 years old, is languishing in Beirut’s notorious Roumieh prison, but has decided to launch a lawsuit against his parents for letting him to be born. His parents are petty criminals who do little to shield him from the incredible hardships of life in Beirut, where violence is rife and shelter hard to come by. Labaki’s film is full of feeling and bursts of raw humour. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a fine one.
Films coming soon...
The Hole In The Ground (Seana Kerslake, Simone Kirby, James Cosmo, Eoin Macken); The Aftermath (Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke); Fighting With My Family (Florence Pugh, Jack Lowden, Dwayne Johnson); Sauvage (Felix Maritaud)