Saturday 23 March 2019

On the Basis of Sex review: 'Biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg unlucky not to have earned a few Oscar nominations of its own'

4 stars

Sense of decency: Hammer and Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Sense of decency: Hammer and Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex
Paul Whitington

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 here to study the 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 quickly finds that no one wants to hire female lawyers. So, for a time, instead of practising, she teaches, lecturing student 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 an 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 radical civil liberties lawyer 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 and deliver the killer constitutional speech that might just win this landmark case.

The real Ms. 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 first 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 Felicity 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 Mimi 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 undeterrable 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.

(12A, 120mins)

Read more: 'It gave me the chance to change gears, to not let my career trajectory be decided for me' - Armie Hammer

Also releasing this week:

Cold Pursuit review: 'An amusing film, beautiful to look at, and Mr. Neeson enjoys himself hugely, and seems to be in on the joke'


Cold Pursuit review: 'Slick and surprisingly stylish film is easily the best thing Liam Neeson has done in years'


Capernaum review: 'Frantic, fast, full of colour and feeling and bursts of raw humour'

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