On the Basis of Sex

Felicity Jones deals out gender justice as future Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, AKA The Notorious RBG.

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The film starts with a breakneck journey through Ruth’s Harvard days, as she looks after cancer-stricken husband Marty (Armie Hammer) while completing her course, through to her graduation and employment as a law professor. At this point it judiciously slows down to focus on Ginsburg’s first court case: helping a man who’s ineligible for a carer’s tax deduction because the provision only applies to women.1531760684_focus-features_on-the-basis-of-sex_felicity-jones_armie-hammer_justin-theroux_unit-1

Having just watched the documentary on the life of Justice Ginsburg it’s a relief that this film doesn’t seek to cover all the same ground. However the choice of case is slightly strange because it wasn’t significant enough to warrant a mention in the documentary and Ginsburg fights it in partnership with her husband in spite of being a fiercely independent voice on women’s rights for most of her career while he worked as a corporate tax lawyer.

The case is decided in circuit court rather than the more cinematic Supreme Court, and we never actually see inside the place where Ginsburg is best known for working. By focusing on her first case it gives naturally shy Ginsburg a satisfying arc, but adjourns before her greatest accomplishments. Given its focus it might have worked better as a Loving-style examination of an important civil rights case, with a bigger role for the barely present defendant in the case, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey).otbos

It’s well made, however, and Jones certainly does justice to the judge. She may not be the spit of Ginsburg but she makes it work, and with the hunky Hammer forms a likeable couple. The rest of the cast are also strong including Sam Waterston as the Harvard Law School Dean who looks eerily like another famous lawyer, Robert Mueller, putting him in strong contention for the inevitable film (All the President’s Men 2?).

Mimi Leder’s direction is largely by the numbers, complete with the cliché where someone enters a classroom by answering the teacher’s question from the doorway, which has never once happened in real life. There’s the predictable marital strife and inspirational speeches at key points, but it largely avoids being overplayed and cloying.

The final verdict is a decent portrait of the living legend without whose pioneering efforts we might not have Judges Judy or Janine. But if you want to know more about RBG, her beliefs and the lighter side of her character, the documentary is a better place to start.

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