21 February 2019 (released)
22 February 2019
As one of the first women to serve as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life story was always ripe for the big screen treatment.
Yet, in light of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements gaining momentum, and the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it seems 2019 is truly the perfect time for On the Basis of Sex to hit cinemas.
Director Mimi Leder’s film kicks off with a young Ruth, as played by The Theory of Everything actress Felicity Jones, attending her first day at Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s, where she is one of only nine women in a class of around 500 men. Not only is the student outnumbered by her peers, but is subjected to gender bias and sexism, with Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) once remarking to her and a group of other women, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?”
But if Ruth doesn’t have enough on her plate already, her entire life is turned upside down when her husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), a second-year Harvard law student, is diagnosed with testicular cancer, and she has to juggle caring for him, attending his lectures to transcribe notes, and looking after their infant daughter Jane.
Thankfully, Martin makes a full recovery, and two years later is hired by a law firm in New York, meaning that Ruth is again faced with a series of obstacles, as Griswold won’t allow her to complete her Harvard degree at Columbia in the Big Apple, and even when she is qualified, is unable to get a job as a lawyer because none of the male-run firms are willing to take a chance on a woman.
During the highs and lows of her early career, Ruth has the full support of Martin, and through much of the narrative, Leder offers up the couple as a model of how men and women can split home and child raising duties. In addition, it is Martin who brings his spouse, who is working as a professor at Rutgers University, possibly the biggest case of her career in 1970. It is at this point in the film that Leder changes tack, switching from a biographical drama to a film that has the altogether feel of an underdog sports movie. In representing Denver man Charles Moritz, Ruth seizes the opportunity to challenge laws which assume men will work to provide, while women will stay home to raise children. Ruth gets advice from Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and stalks civil rights activist Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), before setting about trying to prove that if a man was unfairly discriminated on the basis of sex, that same precedent could be applied to many other laws which discriminate against women. Even though Ruth fails to get her point across in moot court, with Martin forced to take over her arguments, the young lawyer slowly but steadily finds her speed in time for a session at the Court of Appeals, where not unlike Rocky Balboa, she marches up the steps of the building with arms swinging, ready to deliver the knockout punch she has been waiting to throw for 20 years. In her performance, English actress Jones treads carefully between respecting Ruth’s reserved nature and conveying her dogged determination in more dramatic scenes, though her Brooklyn accent slips at times, which can be a little distracting.
Elsewhere, Hammer turns in a confident performance, and seems totally delighted to be playing the supportive husband – a rare role across all film genres, while Theroux is a breath of fresh air as the messy yet encouraging Mel.
In all, On the Basis of Sex oscillates between courtroom tedium and a series of tales of fearless determination, and while this is most definitely the Hollywood interpretation of Ruth’s life, it proves to be a worthy 120 minutes, especially for any young women in the audience.