Presumably if you’re heading in to see On The Basis of Sex (OTBOS) it’s because you’re somewhat familiar with the incredible legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her work in the United States helped to secure civil rights for women, and she’s been sitting on the Supreme Court since she was appointed in 1993. For many feminists, including myself, she is not just an icon but bordering on a deity.
So it is therefore unreasonable to expect any film to fully capture that. OTBOS focuses on Ginsburg’s life from her acceptance to Harvard Law until her first successful court case. This choice makes narrative sense since this journey shows us not only what Ginsburg had to overcome in order to become that woman she is, but it also helps younger viewers to understand exactly the kind of world she was living in. Starting in the early 50s we are reminded that while African-Americans may have won some significant civil rights battles, the country was still a long way from being progressive.
The casting of Felicity Jones as Ginsburg was a solid choice – she has the look of a ‘normal’ person as opposed to the distracting glittery stardom that someone like Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman might have brought to the role. However, Jones’ attempts at a Brooklyn accent are distracting enough on their own. Although, perhaps the most distracting element of the film is the raw sex appeal of Armie Hammer as Ruth’s husband, Martin Ginsburg. The film makes a concerted effort to show that the Ginsburgs weren’t just paying lip service to equality – they truly lived it. Ruth’s cooking was terrible, so Martin does all the cooking. Ruth isn’t a typically affectionate mother, so Martin is the one who provides emotional support to their daughter. The subversion of typical domestic gender roles is genuinely refreshing to see, even if it does feel a little trite at times.
The overall problem with the film is that it feels almost satirical. It’s like the cheesy fake trailers that get used in other movies, where they use all the tropes of the genre in a 15-second clip to highlight how predictable some films are (looking at you, Satan’s Alley). The soundtrack “swells emotionally” about once every five minutes, and the camera seems to linger on moments just a fraction too long, as if to remind us that ‘this is important!’ Every time Jones delivers a line about the inequality of the law it seems like she takes a deep inhale first so she can give it enough gravitas for it to make it into the trailer. By about the fifth variation on “No, it’s the law that’s wrong” it doesn’t really have quite the impact the director seems to think it does.
The dialogue is clunky and awkward throughout most of the film, however there are moments that are genuinely frisson-inducing. The last 10 minutes are the most likely to elicit a tear or two. Much of the conflict of the film relies on demonstrating just how unfair things were for women, and therefore how much Ginsburg truly changed the face of American legislation. However, I suspect that for most women watching it, it’s hard to feel like a lot has changed. The film references laws that state women can’t get credit cards, or perform certain occupations, but mixed in among those are the same kind of issues we’re still faced with today – workplace discrimination, being spoken over, patronised, catcalled, belittled and overlooked. While it may have been the director’s intent to demonstrate how relevant the fight for equal rights still is, at times it just felt exhausting. Having spent eight hours of my day already experiencing this, it wasn’t exactly empowering to go and spend another 2 hours watching it happen to another woman. Instead of cheering Ginsburg on, by the end of the film it’s hard not to just feel bruised by the knowledge that it’s all still happening.
On The Basis of Sex could have been a truly moving and inspiring biopic, but instead it is content with melodramatic mediocrity. Almost every scene feels as though it could be pulled from a satirical trailer for the same movie. It’s not hard to imagine that this is an attempt to cash in on the fandom of RBG and the general ‘wokeness’ of millennial audiences. We get so few biopics about incredible women, it’s a shame that this one is so lacklustre. Ruth Bader Ginsburg deserves so much more than this, and frankly, so do we.