Felicity Jones plays a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex, a by-the-numbers biopic that manages to be pleasant, if not inspired.
Is it possible for a film to feel both incredibly timely and at the same time sort of dated? Regarding narrative and cultural relevance, On the Basis of Sex is the timeliest of timely films, having its world premiere at AFIFest on the same day that its subject, Supreme Court Justice and feminist hero Ruth Bader Ginsberg, was hospitalized with three broken ribs after a fall.
Her legal career as an advocate for gender equality is a flashpoint in popular culture at the moment, while conversations are occurring across all sectors of society about gender discrimination and the shocking prevalence of sexual violence against women. As a supreme court justice in an increasingly divided nation, her dissenting voice has channelled the rage, frustration, and sense of injustice for an entire movement. So for this to be the second Ruth Bader Ginsberg film to come out this calendar year is unsurprising.
In terms of subject matter, On the Basis of Sex is very much of the moment. But as a biopic, it makes many narrative choices that give a bog-standard feel that would be equally present in a similar film 20 years ago. There is little innovation or indeed interesting about the stylistic choices it makes, and although it exhibits flashes of genuine fire throughout, it also has more than its fair share of schmaltz and melodrama.
On the Basis of Sex details Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s early professional life, from her days as one of the only female law students at Harvard, always forced to defend her placement in the program, through her crucial role in a seminal 1970s court case that established precedence for eliminating laws that unfairly discriminated based on gender.
On the Basis of Sex tells this story competently, although perhaps not imaginatively. The pedestrian score and occasionally ham-fisted dialogue serve to undercut the excellent lead performances from Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. (For example, the exchange between Ginsberg and the judge who tells her that the word “woman” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Constitution when she replies, “neither does the word ‘freedom’, your honour” to soaring music veers ever so slightly over the line from poignant to melodramatic.)
Their relationship is the most potent and ground-breaking element of the film. How many times have we seen a movie where the leading man was about to go do something important, and his long-suffering wife appears to tell him that even though it’s taken a toll on their marriage and she’s clearly been emotionally neglected, she knows that he wouldn’t be happy unless he did the Very Important Thing and that she wouldn’t want to be with a man who wasn’t willing stand up for what’s right and blah blah blah? The supportive spouse is one of the most under-appreciated roles in Hollywood, and it almost falls to an actress.
What’s revolutionary about On the Basis of Sex and Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsberg is that they’re primarily able to circumvent this eternal problem in cinema. Marty may be the supportive husband (and honestly, he’s pretty much a saint), but he also very clearly occupies his own space in the film. Their dynamic is the model that all other movies like this should use to depict a happy, committed, respectful, loving relationship.
There is no point in the film where Marty doesn’t want the best for his wife, and it’s clear both in the way that he treats her and how their household functions that he views her as a complete equal in their marriage. Armie Hammer is the husband every robust and successful woman deserves, without any of the bitterness or fragile male ego that so often accompanies these sorts of roles. The scenes that they share take on a different tone than some of the bigger set pieces, subtler and more emotionally genuine. Both actors, as well as Justin Theroux and Kathy Bates in supporting roles, deserve praise for their performances in this film.
Felicity Jones, in particular, acquits herself admirably as the notorious RBG herself, bringing equal parts vulnerability, frustration, and steely determination to the larger-than-life character. Every time a man undervalues her skills (which is approximately five thousand times in this film alone), we see in her eyes the emotional toll this takes on her. She’s able to bring to life an inherently contradictory mental state, which is both plagued with self-doubt and supreme confidence in her intellect and worth as a lawyer. Jones grounds the film and always avoids turning Ruth Bader Ginsberg into a broad caricature of herself.
Ultimately, On the Basis of Sex is a thoroughly by-the-books biopic that is pleasant if not inspired in its narrative approach. While it is occasionally let down by dialogue that overestimates its emotional impact and certain melodramatic tendencies, strong performances and a refreshing approach to the depiction of Ruth and Marty’s marriage make it a worthwhile viewing experience, and its sense of urgency is undeniable.
Audrey is a writer and film critic for Ready Steady Cut, Filmotomy, Jumpcut Online, and Culturess.