If you ever needed something to remind you that the Internet can on occasion be a great and wonderful place, just take a look at the way that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been risen to superhero, cult status in the last few years. A long time figure in American politics and law, Ginsburg has officially been crowned the Notorious RBG by today’s younger generations, and with a story fit for an online legend, there was no doubting that a film about the Supreme Court Justice would be soon to follow.
On The Basis Of Sex focuses on roughly the first third of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (Felicity Jones) legal career, from her long, hard road in the male dominated halls of Harvard and Columbia, to the Professorship she was resigned to take up because no New York law firm would hire a woman, to the early gender discrimination case that put her and her talents firmly on the map. As far as biopics go, this is about as safe and cookie cutter as its gets, but when the cookie is being cut in to a shape that makes you feel good and secure and content, I’m not mad at it.
The audience are treated to a feel good, social justice, fight against the odds type narrative that, to be honest, feels like sweet, sweet therapy in this current political climate, but whilst I certainly had a fun time watching, you can’t help but feel that On The Basis Of Sex barely scratches the surface of just how amazing, resilient and talented Ruth Bader Ginsburg was and still is. All of the narrative beats hit are ones that make you feel empowered and satisfied, but there is just something a bit too conventional about the overall feel of the film for a story about a woman who challenged convention at every turn.
Perhaps I made the mistake of first watching the brilliant, Oscar nominated documentary feature RBG earlier on in the year, because there is no doubting that a little bit of shine is taken away from a film when you have witnessed the real deal, with all her innate charisma, charm and power, and already know the directions in which the plot is going to go. That is probably only half of the issue though, as despite an inspiring story and themes that feel just as relevant today as they did fifty years ago, there is just something about On The Basis Of Sex that keeps it firmly in the ‘good’ category, never really knocking on the door of ‘great’.
There is much more to learn and enjoy about the life and career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg than is detailed in On The Basis Of Sex, but as an introduction to the Notorious RBG, it does a solid job without ever truly soaring.
Felicity Jones does a fine job in the lead role, her Ruth Bader Ginsburg is less of an impersonation and more of an interpretation, which works really well. The real RBG is so instantly recognisable, diminutive and vocally distinct, that to have tried to take on all of her mannerisms and traits would have probably come across as rather corny. Jones really evokes that strength and determination that the character needs, being essentially the only female presence in a career world dominated by men. What is so great about the performance is that she never sacrifices an ounce of femininity to try to fit in, she simply plays the role as is and both Jones’ and Ginsburg’s best qualities shine through as a result.
Something that is a high point of focus in both On The Basis Of Sex and RBG is the life defining importance, for both parties, of Ruth’s decades long marriage to Martin Ginsburg. Armie Hammer takes on the role and is really endearing and lovable, a rock for Ruth in her times of need and a perfect, intelligent, cultured, understanding partner in both life and law. Jones and Hammer share a great screen chemistry, and their love for one another is pretty much the beating heart of the film.
The picture is blessed with a number of high profile supporting and cameo performances from the likes of Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston and Justin Theroux. There is even a surprise appearance by RBG herself, one that could have so easily been cheesy and indulgent, but one that I’m not ashamed to say got me choked up in a massive way!
Overall, On The Basis Of Sex is a well intentioned and heartfelt biopic that, whilst telling a compelling story, definitely remains a little too safe and conventional to be classed as anything more than ‘good’. If nothing else, I hope the film inspires you to find out more about the real woman herself, 85 years old right now, still sitting on the Supreme Court, still fighting the good legal and political fight, as well as three separate bouts of cancer to date. She is an amazing woman, truly one of a kind, and whilst I don’t think this film does her total justice, it is still a solid and empowering ride.