Two months ago I watched the excellent documentary RBG, a thoughtful dissection of the life of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You can read my thoughts on that here. Thanks to that thoughtful, emotional and honest character study, I like to think that there are elements of the woman who are unique, special even and should not be altered for dramatic effect. Director Mimi Leder and writer Daniel Stiepleman despite having crafted a nice, equally compelling spectacle clearly thought differently. The Ruth here is one of fiction, a fun person to spend an afternoon with, not one to believe in.
On The Basis of Sex tells the story of Ruth (Felicity Jones) from her early days at Harvard law school as she fights against the intrinsic prejudices within the constitution she has sworn to uphold. As she battles against personal difficulties and a world not ready for the working woman. Instead of revolt she seeks to change it by changing the minds of those in charge, leading her to the supreme court and into the hearts and minds of the people around her.
While RBG as a documentary was a beginning to end kind of affair, straight as an arrow in its recounting of events, Leder’s film is even more simplistic, concentrating solely on one snapshot of Ginsburg’s life with a snippet of her school life for added colour to a woman whose importance and determination doesn’t need justifying. However it must be said that in developing her, Jones and Leder avoid the usual pitfalls its story contains. More concerned with telling a tale of what constitutes change and the best way to go about it, this isn’t just about feminism, it is about the changing landscape of a country.
The elegance of the picture displayed here isn’t that it is a different kind of biopic, to say that would be lying, it just prescribes to a different way of seeing the world, a more tempered logical approach. It all sounds thoroughly boring and safe in a way but its a risky move. The film doesn’t seek to change a country, it wants to educate one. The JFK notion of ask not what you can do for your country is in full bloom here. It’s a clever distinction that brings about analogies to life today and the Trump era of regression, not just for women but in terms of education. While as a film it might hit a few bumps along the way, as a tool to inspire and teach it is phenomenally powerful.#
The debate between what is more important, polite discussion or volatile resistance is one we all must decide for ourselves and this struggle is important to the direction of the film, but not to Ginsburg herself. Like i stated before, the main detractor here is the limited scope that Leder has resigned herself to. Themes of grand importance like family, legacy and who you want to live up to, shine for are at play here but they act as little more than footnotes to a story that just doesn’t live up to the reality. The glamorised exaggeration of her life is more important than the things that drove her. Injustice carried out against women under the law is of great historical importance but it seems that in concentrating heavily on that, character goes by the wayside.
In a way On The Basis of Sex only really works as a vehicle for Felicity Jones, and by extension Armie Hammer, as they are the sole characters that actually get to show off any. Jones is understated but brilliant in her choices and Leder’s direction gives her room to play around with inflections and silent composure to add nuance the script fails to. The Ruth here is wild yet contained, strong-willed but soft when needs be, constantly expecting the best from those around her. Jones clearly loves the role, the person and everything in between and the smart choices she makes here show just that.
Hammer manages to make a heartless role, a walking exposition dump into something believable and real, a husband proud of his wife and more than willing to take the back seat in the face of her strength of character. His moments bring out the best in the both of them and their chemistry inspires greatness in others. The rest of the cast are basic thematic emblems, people designed to make a point and nothing else. After seeing Justin Theroux in The Leftovers, you know that what he was given here, wasn’t enough.
Its hard not to see where this could have gone had there been more time, more attention to detail, a more brazen script but it serves as an admirable attempt to say something interesting about where we are as a people, how far we have come and what could happen if we slip into complacency and allow ourselves to slip backwards. An admirable ethos, a lacklustre result.