You would not expect an octogenarian supreme-court judge to become a pop culture icon, but this is exactly what has happened to Ruth Bader Ginsberg (The Notorious RBG). This ground-breaking advocate for gender equality and social change celebrated 25 years on the Supreme Court bench last year, and has not surprisingly become the subject of two recent movies – the acclaimed documentary RBG (2018) and this biopic.
On the Basis of Sex is akin to a superhero origin story, showing the early stages of RBG’s life – from her early law school days, to the landmark case that opened up the topic of sex discrimination. Those early days come across as a little simplistic with a Stanford dean (Sam Waterston) painted as a classic cardboard cutout villain patronisingly asking the female law students to justify taking a place that should have gone to a man. However when the film’s emphasis shifts to the court case On The Basis of Sex is on more solid footing, as it illustrates RBG’s passion for fighting for gender equality in the system.
With the political there is also the personal, and here On The Basis of Sex runs with the fairly standard love story of her longtime marriage to Martin Ginsberg (Armie Hammer). Yet it does help to show that the family walks the walk with gender equality, with Martin sharing the household duties, and providing support.
Felicity Jones (Star Wars: Rogue One) has some physical resemblance but doesn’t really capture her spirit or really master the thick Brooklyn accent. That might sound picky, but it’s important for convincing characterisation, and highlighting her difference in background to other Ivy League students. Hence a difficulty for a biographical story, and vastly problematic in one who’s central subject is so iconic.
Ultimately On The Basis of Sex has the standard visual, storytelling, script and music approach that you would expect from a historical biopic. Serviceable, but incapable of doing justice to its subject. Instead of striving for change, and making waves, On The Basis of Sex is run of the mill old fashioned storytelling, not taking too many risks. Here RBG is turned into the patron saint of gender equality, rather than a fleshed out and flawed human-being. So whereas it tells an important story, it doesn’t give much personal or fresh insight.