- 22 Feb 19
Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic is accomplished but muted by cliche.
The staggering success of the documentary RBG shows how much of a cultural icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become, so Mimi Ledger’s biopic felt inevitable. On The Basis Of Sex begins with Ginsburg’s (Felicity Jones) entry to Harvard Law School in 1956, when she was one of just nine women studying. At an orientation dinner, the Dean (Sam Waterston) demands that each woman stand up and explain why she was “occupying a place that could have gone to a man” – an example of the explicit sexism Ginsburg would constantly face.
But she does meet someone who respects and loves her as an equal: her husband, Marty (Armie Hammer). Charming and brilliant, Marty gets sick while also studying law, and Ginsburg’s life becomes a portrait of determination, taking a double class load to ensure Marty gets all his notes, while also caring for him and their daughter. Later, while serving as a law professor, this lived experienced of both gender discrimination and the role of carer inspires Ginsburg to argue her first case. When a man caring for his mother is denied the IRS caregiver exemption because the law assumes caregivers are all women, she shrewdly points out how gender discrimination devalues everyone.
Jones and Hammer are charming, though their Norman Rockwell appearances and the screenplay undermine their experience of, and fight against, anti-Semitism. Instead, the film focuses on Ginsburg’s sometimes literal journey to Find Her Voice for The Big Case, complete with screeching microphone in her opening argument. It’s a well-trodden trope, indicative of how the filmmakers’ determination to stress that Ginsburg is a Heroine leads them to smother the film in narrative clichés. It’s forgivable – the directing and performances are accomplished (shout-out to Jack Reynor, who puts in a believably smarmy turn as a chauvinistic lawyer), and the inspiring story is well-told. It just feels very familiar and rote for the story of a woman fighting to unmake tired rules.