Movie Review: ‘ON THE BASIS OF SEX’ – Notorious RBG: Origins
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ON THE BASIS OF SEX
Director Mimi Leder’s ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens with some powerful imagery: As a percussive marching band plays, accompanied by a male chorus, a mass of homogenously power-suited men walk proudly to their first day at Harvard Law School. And in their midst stands petite powerhouse Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), completely owning her space. In a sea of sameness, she stands out – not just because of her feminine dresses, but because of her confidence, compassion, and intellect. While this biopic falls a bit short of the emotional wallop of Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary RBG, its inspiring, empowering message is a love letter to the iconic trailblazer’s enduring legacy.
The narrative takes a page from fellow SCOTUS justice Thurgood Marshall’s recent biopic, MARSHALL, but is paced and plotted far better. Gingsburg’s film actually focuses on a landmark case, whereas his dealt with a fairly insignificant one. Her long journey to getting a seat on the top court in the land was birthed from the adversity she faced as one of a small handful of women allowed to attend Harvard Law in the 50’s, a time not conducive to feminism. She and future husband Marty (Armie Hammer) tackle many trials and tribulations along the way, not the least of which is Marty’s battle with cancer, which comes as they are attending law school and nursing a baby. After graduating, Ginsburg faces the closed doors of law firms, so she pursues teaching until her big break comes along: a sexual discrimination case involving a man.
Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (who is Ginsburg’s real life nephew) pepper the picture with hero moments great and small – everything from Ruth’s familial support system encouraging and inspiring her, to smashing the walls built by the patriarchy. These scenes are not exclusive to the inevitable, rousing third act climax, but are rather disseminated throughout – like the heart-to-heart between Marty and tempestuous teen Jane (Cailee Spaeny) as they discuss how Ruth shows her love, or when Ruth witnesses Jane cussing out a bunch of catcallers. The filmmakers also illustrate that Ruth’s character is formed not just in her triumphs, but also in her set-backs and failures. Even though she’s strong, she’s still human and has crises of confidence. This is where the equality in her marriage shines through, lifting her back up. Plus, their approach shows a demonstrably different take on the tropey Woman-Who-Waits-At-Home role in Marty, gifting him (and Hammer for that matter) with a fleshed-out, complementary arc.
Jones embodies Ruth’s gumption superbly. She’s effortless, subtle, impressive and forceful. Her pathos shows during scenes shared with Spaeny, and also with Justin Theroux, who plays ACLU legal director Mel Wulf. The latter scenes give the audience a refreshing jolt of energy, much like in THE POST and SPOTLIGHT, as our heroes fight the good fight with powerful, resonant arguments.
Ruth’s journey is also reflected through costume designer Isis Mussenden’s wardrobe, which morphs from the peppy light blues of the late 50’s, to the muted, serious brown and navy combinations of the 70’s, to a rich royal blue once our heroine comes into her own. It’s also noteworthy that Ruth sports a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress during her moot court debate in the Ginsburg living room, as it’s a subtle shout-out to another pioneering feminist force.
Leder and company have crafted a solid biopic – not just for the modern era, but also for future generations who will hopefully carry on the torch of Ginsburg’s wisdom, tenacity, and humanity.
ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens on December 25.