On the basis of sex
- Review by Maia Mathieu
Courtroom drama meets real-life trailblazers in this biopic about ‘notorious' American Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Beginning in 1965, On the Basis of Sex introduces us to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as a law student, one of only 9 women in a class of 500. In the words of Harvard University's Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) she's there, "taking the place of a man." It's empowering by design, pitting a gutsy heroine against the patriarchy. What's extraordinary though is how few liberties were taken with history along the way.
Felicity Jones anchors an incredible cast with a note-perfect portrayal of Justice Ginsburg, and she’s ably supported by Armie Hammer in the role of Marty Ginsburg, one of the most devoted, passionate husbands ever committed to film. A Star Is Born won my heart in a large part by the way that Cooper's Jackson looked at Gaga's Ally. With Ruth and Marty, it's that adoration all over again, but this time rooted in a real life love story for the ages. Reportedly, when she gave her consent for the movie to be made, Justice Ginsburg had only two demands: get the law right and get Marty right. Despite being overlooked for awards, this is the best I've ever seen Armie Hammer, and it’s almost incredible to see the trope of ‘devoted spouse’ being played by a man.
After graduating at the top of her class, Ruth can't find a firm to hire her and instead takes on a professorship at Rutgers Law School, teaching subjects like America’s first-ever class on sex discrimination and the law. It's in teaching that groundbreaking class that Ruth becomes aware of how deeply entrenched gender inequality actually is, but it's Marty who finds the necessary leverage to begin taking it on: "I don't read tax court cases," Ruth huffs irritably, "Read this one," Marty assures her.
Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a never-married Denver man, is being denied a tax break to pay for the care of his aging mother. Had he been a woman, or even a divorced man, he'd get the tax break. It's a case of discrimination on the basis of sex that, for once, penalises a man. Moritz’s case presents the perfect opportunity to break open the entire American legal system of gender-based discrimination. It's on working this case with Marty and the ACLU that Jones’ Ruth truly comes alive. Unfortunately, it's also when the film shifts from biopic to legal drama and veers a little close to cliché. Yes, of course, it all hinges on that one, impassioned, last-ditch speech, but honestly, if you're not emotionally invested and three tissues in by this point, this wasn't the movie for you.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg's extraordinary life story spans 85 years and counting, and this film tries very hard to cram the larger part of an eventful seven years into two hours. It very nearly succeeds, despite the ‘scrappy underdog triumphs’ tone of the ending. This is a tale that might have been better told through a few seasons of prestige television, to give it time to breathe and build. Nevertheless, this is an uplifting story of an important chapter in the struggle for gender equality, anchored in touching portrayals of real-life heroes, and in that sense, it's a timely and important movie. Go see it, it's the best thing I've seen so far this year.