Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex documents the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones). We’re introduced to Ginsberg as a student of Law at Harvard. Ginsberg balances work and family life, as she and her tax attorney husband Martin (Armie Hammer), fight the case of a lifetime in an attempt to equalise gender rights.
Felicity Jones’ performance lacked the conviction and punch needed to portray the force of nature that is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Ginsberg may be softly spoken, but her passion for the causes she fights for is glaring – something that’s missing in all but Jones’ last speech during rebuttal at the Moritz case.
Armie Hammer plays Ginsberg’s sweet, supportive husband Martin. Martin takes on much of the housework and childcare duties to allow his wife to have a career, illustrating the modern, forward-thinking family they were. However, On the Basis of Sex glosses over Ruth and Martin’s relationship quite a bit, favouring Ruth’s investigation into the case rather than her home life. I would have liked to see the way Ruth balanced her family and career explored further, developing her character and giving us an insight into the layers that built up this trailblazing woman. I wanted the film to be more about Ruth and less about the case.
I wasn’t a fan of the film’s narrative structure. The first half is benchmarked with title cards stating the years, as it rushes through her education, her husband’s battle with cancer and her growing family. After an hour, we get to the main plot point, a case that Ginsberg takes on which highlights gender discrimination in one of many laws. Here the pace slows right down, emphasising this one element of her story. Time isn’t issued out fairly, glossing over important moments in Ruth’s life that would have shaped her character and values. Instead, this time is spent on an already generous segment about the case.
In the rush of the first hour, we see Ginsberg attend a job interview, the last of many she had been rejected for. Only showing her at the other interviews, being discriminated against by these mostly male firms, would have emphasised Ruth’s unfair situation and just how downtrodden her efforts were. This would have given some context to Ruth’s fight for equality and illustrated why she fought so hard to be respected by her male peers.
There is also a rushed attempt to show society evolving around Ginsberg, through a civil rights rally outside the school she works in and a few comments from her stubborn teenage daughter. This element of the story could have been developed further, justifying Ginsberg’s argument that society has changed, so law should change to follow suit.
What should have been an empowering, feminist story about Ruth’s fight for justice is, unfortunately, a mediocre biopic investing in all the wrong areas. The ‘twee’ all-American marching band music that backed the movie seemed inappropriate and didn’t complement the narrative at all.
On the Basis of Sex is an unremarkable account of a remarkable woman’s story.