On The Basis of Sex

The documentary RBG is Oscar-nominated; this stodgy, glossy, starry biopic isn’t. And that’s a fair outcome. 

The doc, which I reviewed earlier this year, captures Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the person in all her twinkly intelligence while her work is revered for its moral seriousness, ambition and intellectual bravery.

This movie, starring Felicity Jones, doesn’t do the Justice full justice. For starters Jones isn’t perfect casting – she’s small and bright but lacks the spark here that she had in, say, The Theory of Everything. She looks like she’s trying not to spill something. Also, and I’ve no idea if I’m allowed to say it, she’s not Jewish, and I think it’s this that’s missing – she really doesn’t convey RBG’s Jewish side, something that comes across very warmly and importantly in the doc.

Starting at Harvard Law School in 1956, Mimi Leder’s film glides through a few cliches such as the practically compulsory lecture hall scene in which young Ruth proves she’s smarter than the boorish flop haired boys, and far better prepared with her case research. 

Armie Hammer provides easy-going support as husband Marty, particularly in the kitchen, while he’s also the benign guiding hand who tips Ruth the wink about the Illinois tax case she eventually champions, in the 1970s, all the way to the Supreme Court and which begins tipping the law away from discriminating on the basis of sex.

The film progresses in an elegant enough fashion but doesn’t fully harness the inspirational aspect of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work or personality. In trying to remain faithful to facts and history, the period clothes and posters look right but there’s a lack of dramatic tension and no distinctive, intellectual edge. The scenes of the stern-faced old white judges harrumphing about a woman’s place being in the home and then slowly smiling at this defiant little lady in front of them feel as cliched as they are patronising.