Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex
The biographical drama, On the Basis of Sex, received a wide release over the weekend after a limited release on Christmas Day. The film follows the early life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It was directed by Mimi Leder and written by Daniel Stiepleman. Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg while Armie Hammer costars as her husband, Martin Ginsburg. The supporting cast also includes Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaeny, and Callum Shoniker.
The film begins with Ruth Ginsburg entering Harvard Law School as only one of nine women in a roomful of men. Opening addresses are given by the Dean, and all of the women are invited to dine with him and his wife. While at this dinner, the Dean asks them to share where they are from and why they are taking up a seat that a man could have occupied. Ruth gives a mocking answer, which her husband, a second-year law student, later teases her about. Ruth is a hardworking, competent student, but her life soon becomes more complicated whenever Martin falls ill with cancer. At this point, Ruth begins attending his classes in addition to her own, and she helps Martin by writing the papers that he dictates. Whenever he recovers and graduates, he is offered a job in New York. The Dean will not allow Ruth to finish her third year of law school remotely, so she transfers to Columbia University, where she graduates among the top of her class. Once she finishes school, she is unable to find a legal job, which leads her to teaching. However, whenever Martin discovers a case where a man is discriminated against, Ruth finally gets a chance to represent someone and potentially change the law.
So, I am a complete sucker for biopics or any kind of biographical drama, which made On the Basis of Sex a film to watch. Since I was born in the late 80’s, I only have memories of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a Supreme Court Justice. Needless to say, I had little to no knowledge of her legal career before that appointment, so I found the portrayal here of her early career days to be fascinating. The film does a great job of portraying the struggles she experienced as one of the few women in law school at the time and the amount of work she put forth to keep her and Martin successful in school during his illness. The film throws a lot of legal knowledge into the story and somehow manages to not make it feel overwhelming in the moment.
There are some mediocre aspects to the film, but I think the real success of it lies in its performances and this classic underdog story. Felicity Jones is fantastic as Ginsburg, capturing the toughness and determination that has dominated her career. Armie Hammer is equally as wonderful as Martin Ginsburg, and he brings a lot of heart to the film with the way he encourages and understands the women in his life. The relationship between Martin and Ruth is the backbone of the story, and their relationship particularly with their daughter, Jane, is another highlight of the film. The two of them take on the system in the film, and it is those overwhelming odds against them that make this underdog story so compelling.
While the film incorporates one too many slow-motion sequences for my personal taste, I still think that this is a solid biopic. Ginsburg is known for her legislative career in gender equality and women’s rights, and this movie really shows how she got started. No matter how someone feels about Ginsburg or her politics, no one can deny that she is a woman who pushed through and managed to succeed in a man’s profession despite setback after setback. Also, there are some beautifully written moments in this film, and Ginsburg’s speeches toward the end of the film are killer. At the end of the day, I think that anyone who enjoys a biographical legal drama will find On the Basis of Sex enjoyable, especially with the caliber of performances in the film.
Mollie is a film enthusiast, aspiring writer/screenwriter, and a lover of all things Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Doctor Who. She is the co-founder of The Digital Shore (@thedigitalshore) and Above The Line (@atl_movies). You can follow her many adventures through Twitter and Instagram at @mcbeach.