On the Basis of Sex review – patchy Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic

A familiarly wrought, intermittently effective drama benefits from retelling a fascinating backstory yet is hampered by a miscast Felicity Jones

For many Americans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex will play less like a stuffy awards-thirsty drama and more like an action-packed superhero origin tale. The groundbreaking, glass ceiling-shattering legal figure has become a symbol of justice, resistance and hope, one who’s managed to gain bipartisan respect and pop culture appeal (the mass outpouring of support that’s met this week’s news of her fall has been further proof of just how highly respected and adored she is).

At 85, she remains one of the few progressive hopes on what’s set to become an increasingly Trumpian supreme court and after the documentary RBG was a surprise box office hit this summer, timing couldn’t be better for its narrative counterpart.

Opening this year’s AFI festival as one of the few remaining Oscar hopes to be unveiled, on paper there’s enough momentum to push the film into the minds of voters, but there’s an equal amount of baggage weighing it down. Because while there’s an undeniably cinematic feel to Ginsburg’s rise, there’s a strict, almost parody-level adherence to biopic film-making 101 and a distractingly miscast lead.

As Brooklyn-born Ginsburg we have Birmingham-born Felicity Jones, first seen as one of the few female students at Harvard law school in the late 1950s, being made to feel grateful for the opportunity alongside men who she regularly outsmarts. Despite graduating at the top of her class, she struggled to find work, encountering absurd sexist firms concerned about her “emotional state” or ability to work away from her husband and child. She found a job as a law professor, and as the film leaps into the early 70s, we see Ginsburg frustrated not to be in court, righting the many systemic wrongs of the time.

When her tax lawyer husband Martin (Armie Hammer) comes across a case of gender discrimination against a man, she leaps at the chance to explore, seeing it as a way to finally begin an attack on laws that diminish the rights of women.

The trailer, easily one of the year’s worst, threatened something close to catastrophe with beats so painfully familiar that it almost felt like an SNL skit. But the film itself isn’t quite so disastrous. No matter how much schmaltz is ladled on top, Ginsburg’s story is undeniably fascinating, and the script, written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman, avoids turning the character into a walking sass machine. (Applause-ready quips are kept to a minimum.) What’s surprising is how invested the film is in the weeds of what she was trying to do. The legalese-filled dialogue, to the untrained ear, feels mostly un-neutered.

The case at heart, concerning the taxation of a male caregiver, might sound dry. But it’s treated with care and urgency, the minutiae of what it consists of and what it could mean proving to be as engaging as a murder case. There’s a propelling motion that makes the film a swift, slick watch led by a figure rare in a genre still dominated by men. In telling the story of a woman combating gender discrimination, the film allows for brief inroads into some compelling arguments of the time, some of which are symbolised by Ginsburg’s domestic wrestles with her daughter, who sees rallying in the streets as more vital than petitioning in court. There’s so much for the film to cover, too much even, that these issues might get but a light mention, but it’s refreshing to see a film even mention them in the first place.

We also get a rare view of the micro-aggressions faced by women such as Ginsburg, the indignities that build up until they explode in an effective court-based finale. The film is jam-packed with moments clearly signposted for reactions. Some work, but there are more that feel clumsy alongside some rote, on-the-nose dialogue. Director Mimi Leder, whose varied career goes all the way from Deep Impact to Pay It Forward to The Leftovers, is a capable if cautious hand, who has constructed a film that looks and feels like we’ve seen it before, many, many times.

What really hampers proceedings, however, is Leder’s choice of lead. It’s such a disappointment that the film’s weakest link is arguably its most important. Struggling with an accent she never manages to nail, Jones fails to bring real command to a role that so desperately needs it. There’s energy but no depth.

It’s not that Jones is necessarily bad; she’s just incredibly miscast, never once justifying why she was picked for a role that was surely in demand. And her incongruity is made even more glaring by the effortlessness of those around her, from a charismatic Hammer to a spiky, underused Kathy Bates, to an on-form Justin Theroux as her tetchy, overstretched contact at the ACLU. They rally around her, but the majority of the film relies on Jones and it’s a weight that she just can’t carry.

Ginsburg’s life has been compelling enough for two films this year, but it’s likely that the first, less flashy effort will go down as the more vital. On the Basis of Sex is a solid, often impassioned film, but too often its worst instincts take over, and cliches stack up faster than legal documents. Ginsburg’s legacy will endure, but it’s questionable as to whether this film will survive with her.

  • On the Basis of Sex is released in the US on 25 December and in the UK on 4 January


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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