Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is one only a handful of of female students at Harvard Law School in the 1950s. Despite being comfortably at the top of her class and excelling she still struggles to gain even a foothold. Everything changes when she discovers her true calling – taking on the laws in America that discriminate based sex.
The story of Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is not one that I actually knew anything about prior to seeing this film. I was aware of her more recent career and her status as a champion of feminism but I’d never really considered how she became the icon she is today. On the Basis of Sex is essentially her superhero origin story.
While the subject matter is undoubtedly important it’s a slightly odd choice for a film. It’s a fascinating story but it isn’t something that is necessarily cinematic. There are no defining standout moments, no dramatic stand offs and the film stops well short of her assuming the position she holds today. It’s almost as though it gives you a window to the start of something interesting but never quite finishes off the story.
One of the real strengths of the film is Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer as Ruth and Marty, there’s a real warmth and affection between the two of them. They appear to be the ideal couple; they’re supportive and caring and rarely disagree (that we see anyway). There are some obstacles but the pair manage to handle them with minimal fuss. While it’s nice to see them interacting in day-to-day life and playing off each other so beautifully it means that there’s no dramatic tension from their relationship either.
The cases at the heart of the film are incredibly important and set precedents for years to come but the law is hardly fast paced and not ideally suited to the big screen. It’s not inherently cinematic. When things actually reach a courtroom there’s none of the bombastic drama that we’ve been conditioned to expect from cinematic legal wrangling.
Despite everything I’ve said I still enjoyed On the Basis of Sex, there might not be a huge amount of dramatic tension but the story still managed to feel interesting and managed to keep my attention. The majority of the film follows Ruth’s life as she bounces from one disappointment to the next, quietly chipping away at things as an academic. It’s only when the film reaches the 1970s that things actually start to ramp up.
On the Basis of Sex takes a look at a fairly narrow slice of an extraordinary woman. and while interesting it always felt like there are was more to show us.