On the Basis of Sex

by Toby Woollaston

You might have noticed the meme “Notorious RBG” bandied about recently; a humorous meld of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—a demure Jewish lawyer—and American rap artist Notorious BIG who is anything but. As this film neatly illustrates, Ginsburg’s dogged drive and determination for shaking up the establishment show that there is more truth to the meme’s apparent oxymoron than meets the eye. She’s diminutive in stature but a giant in the fight for gender equality.

On the Basis of Sex begins in the sixties with Ruth as a bright-eyed Harvard law school entrant with a gifting for the books and a firm belief in the power of change. It’s a volatile combination and her struggle with sexism within the male-dominated law fraternity was something her quiet resolve could not ignore. So she set about illuminating the lecturers, Judges and pundits who didn’t think sex-discrimination existed … rather successfully.

Spanning her life through to the seventies, the film settles down into a procedural court-room drama examining the Wiesenfeld case—a foundational case that Ginsburg used to bring about constitutional change to womens rights.

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) walks a fine line between an authentic portrayal of the real Ginsburg—whose reserved and mild nature was never going to set the silver screen alight—and breathing new life into her persona for the purposes of engaging cinema. Thankfully, she finds common ground and delivers a performance that leans well enough on emotional drama while never losing sight of Ginsburg’s stoney temperament.

For the most part On the Basis of Sex adequately handles its material. Yet, conventionality is a sticking-point for a film that struggles to avoid riffing on some well-trodden clichés. Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) certainly doesn’t bring anything fresh to the cinematic bar despite having a seemingly solid screenplay to work with. Although Jones works hard to spice up the dry world of constitutional law, On the Basis of Sex remains superficially inspiring and lacks the venom of Notorious RBG’s reputation.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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