Released: 7th February
Seen: 18th February
When the history of the fight for women’s rights is written, a solid chunk of that book will inevitably revolve around Ruth Bader Ginsburg, current Justice of the Supreme Court and (hopefully) owner of the philosopher’s stone that will grant her immortality so that she may survive for another millennium. She is, unquestionably, one of the key figures in the women’s rights movement and it seemed inevitable that her rise from law student to Supreme Court Justice would be turned into a biopic at some point, and it got one in the form of On The Basis of Sex.
On The Basis of Sex starts off with a shot that is emblematic of the entire concept behind the film, a sea of male bodies going as far as the eye can see. As the shot continues on we see, slowly emerging between the sea of dark-suited men, a small woman who is having to work her way through the barrage of men and the only reason we can see her is thanks to her contrasting bright blue outfit that stands out among the sea of dark suits. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a woman who came to be a lawyer in a time when it was socially acceptable for a dean of Harvard to ask “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man” to the nine women in his class of 500. If the very notion that a Dean of Harvard Law could ask such a question fills your body with white-hot rage, have I got a movie for you!
The film is shockingly quick, jumping from law school to Ruth being a teacher (because she couldn’t get hired by a law firm because systemic sexism didn’t magically vanish the second that women got the vote) to what the bulk of the film revolves around, a tax law case. The hard part about doing so much of a person’s life, in this case, a span of around 20 years, is that the person playing the character has to show us how much they changed in the parts we don’t see. We miss out on a solid decade of these characters lives (because cinema requires a certain narrative structure and every minute of a person’s life isn’t interesting enough to be put on film) and Felicity Jones excels at this. Witnessing her show the growth of Ginsburg is something else; a wonderful display of strength from start to finish that really pulls you in and makes it clear how passionate Ginsburg is.
The film also doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the general topic of sexism, the reality that not only is Ruth fighting for women to be treated equally but that she’s fighting to dismantle the very notion that certain genders are required to do certain things. The entire film keeps playing with just what we expect from either gender, from Ruth being a lawyer to her husband (Armie Hammer) being the cook of the family. While these ideas seem quaint today, they were radical back then and this film doesn’t shy away from pointing out just how extreme these changes felt at the time. It hammers it in, it has to because today the concept of a female lawyer or a man who cooks dinner is pedestrian, but back then they were the gender roles we had accepted and it’s important that the film spends a decent amount of time reminding us of that, even though there are times it gets a little heavy-handed with it.
The film does have some problems that are, ironically, based on it trying to conform to the typical structure of a legal drama. This means that some moments feel contrived and a little on the nose. One thing that felt a little like it was done to create drama (which is fine, normally) is that Ruth isn’t a great orator, at least in the start. Her entire arc is basically being able to talk in front of a judge and deliver an argument and while that’s great as a character arc in a piece of fiction, it robs us of our chance to really see what Ruth could do. This is probably because we only get to see the start of her story, the first case she ever got to try and that’s all we get. We don’t get to see her grow; we don’t get to see her fully formed. The closest we get is a brilliant shot at the end involving the actual Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but in terms of Narrative, we’re seeing a woman who just barely got through her first case and then… that’s it. Some of the elements along the way were clearly cut in favour of fitting into this very simple story that they had to tell, a regular old legal drama and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with a regular old legal drama… except when it’s a biopic on one of the most important women to ever practice law. Then you kind of need to have more, or at least feel like you’re giving us more.
The elements of On the Basis Of Sex all work, the casting is great, the visuals fit the narrative and it’s a really engaging story. It’s a good film, but it should’ve been great. This is a film I’d compare to Bohemian Rhapsody, where everything does the job that it should do for a regular film of this kind… but this story is something special, the film should match that. I can’t deny I enjoyed the film, I can’t pretend it isn’t good, but its flaw is that it didn’t go far enough to honour the subject that it’s about and that holds it back, at least for me. Now, I have to go and give my sacrifice to the great gods of old so that Ruth Bader Ginsburg may live another decade or so.