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On the Basis of Sex – Movie Review

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On the Basis of Sex – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Universal Pictures

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s status as a feminist icon can hardly be disputed and so, a biopic about her accomplishments was inevitable. Under the direction of Mimi Leder, On the Basis of Sex smartly focuses on a few moments in her life, rather than a standard biopic through the years. The film gives enough understanding for why Ginsburg took on a specific human rights case and the journey following that case to the Supreme Court makes for a compelling story. What truly elevates the material is Felicity Jones, who commands our attention and when she launches into one of many speeches, we listen.

While one would hardly call On the Basis of Sex subtle as there are multiple scenes of speech giving, it would be difficult to make this film without speechifying. The film gives a general idea of the misogyny of the time period and the hardships Ginsburg tried to overcome. Taking on a New York accent, Felicity Jones does a great job of portraying this woman attempting to be taken seriously in the law world and she commands the screen, carrying much of the film on her shoulders. The movie also does nicely in depicting the relationship between Ginsburg and her husband Martin. Jones and Armie Hammer have wonderful chemistry and there’s a great deal of support shown through their marriage.

There is also an emphasis placed on her relationship with her daughter Jane, who is made to represent more modern ideals of feminism. Leder uses this as an opportunity to show how both the old-fashioned and current modes of feminism can co-exist. Curiously, her son appears for one scene and then vanishes without a trace. He is not a prominent figure in the story, anyway, but it is interesting how he never even re-appears in the background at any point. On the Basis of Sex does feature the sneering men common in these sorts of movies with Stephen Root and Sam Waterston doing well in making their one-dimensional characters into people we can hate and root against.

By focusing attention on a single law-changing case, On the Basis of Sex is able to keep focused on its goals. By being set in a single period in Ginsburg’s life, we get a better idea of who she is than if the film had just decided to be a Cliff’s Notes rundown of her entire career. The film does a good job of breaking down the process that went into getting this case before the Supreme Court and Ginsburg’s motivations are clear. We, of course, get the big courtroom scene and Leder gives her actors plenty of room to interpret the trial with their dialogue and yes, speeches.

On the Basis of Sex doesn’t re-write the rulebook, but it does succeed in showing who Ruth Bader Ginsburg was during a pivotal time in her life. It’s a solid recreation of events, with some of the expected Hollywood dramatic licenses and sweeping music. It is Felicity Jones who runs the show and keeps our attention, capturing the persistence that drove Ginsburg onto her eventual role as a Supreme Court Justice. It is certainly a topical film, what with recent events involving a controversial nomination to the Supreme Court, but the movie works beyond that. Most importantly, it’s good to see Mimi Leder back to directing a theatrical motion picture. She did make arguably the best asteroid movie of 1998, after all.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison