Monday 14 January 2019

Movie Review: On The Basis Of Sex (2018)

A biographical drama, On The Basis Of Sex recounts the story of the remarkable Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she starts challenging archaic laws preventing gender equity.

It's the late 1950s, and Ruth (Felicity Jones) is one of the few women first-year students at Harvard Law School. She clashes with the sexist attitudes of Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) and Professor Brown (Stephen Root). Ruth is married to second-year law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who supports her career ambitions, and together they are raising baby daughter Jane. The couple deal with a health scare and relocate to New York City when Martin lands a corporate position specializing in tax law.

Ruth graduates first in class from Columbia, but because she is a woman corporate doors slam in her face, and she reluctantly accepts a professor position teaching sex discrimination and the law. By 1970 the anti-war and women's rights movements have translated into street protests, with Jane (Cailee Spaeny) an active participant. Martin notices a tax case involving gender-based discrimination against a male caregiver; he reignites Ruth's passion for practicing law, and she starts assembling a court challenge with far reaching implications.

Inspired by real events, On The Basis Of Sex has a terrific story to tell. The fight to free women's social rights from a myriad of discriminatory laws written by men and upheld by various court rulings over many years was a daunting undertaking. Ginsburg combined clarity of thought with astonishing determination to start the task of chipping away, and found the perfect opening in a case involving tax benefit discrimination against men.

As directed by Mimi Leder from a script by Daniel Stiepleman, the film does occasionally threaten to descend into standard-fare hagiography territory, and a few moments of gotcha triumphalism cheapen the narrative. Much better is the depth provided to Ruth's character. She is presented with well-rounded flaws, including an owly disposition and an inability to empathize and easily connect at a human level, traits that place her at odds with the teenaged Jane.

Also contributing to the film's appeal are supporting characters with key roles. Martin Ginsburg is much more than a supportive husband. He plays a crucial role as father and partner in legal strategy, the struggle for women's right much stronger when enlightened men join the battle. Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the American Civil Liberties Union is another important part of the story, and helps to highlight the cross-currents of tension between pragmatism and academia.

On The Basis Of Sex earns respect for not shying away from several thorough but still accessible discussions of legal intricacies. Reversing the recent trend of biographies cowering away from explaining the relevant subject matter as in The Theory Of Everything and The Imitation Game, here Leder fearlessly wades into an admirable level of discourse about legal cases, briefs and process.

Felicity Jones as Ruth adopts an indomitable attitude of walking through walls until others suggest that maybe she needs to sometimes try and walk around. Her performance energizes the film, despite being short of nuance for stretches. Fighting discrimination On The Basis Of Sex required a new kind of warrior. Maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not smile enough, but only because she was busy altering the course of history.

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