2019 | DIRECTOR: MIMI LEDER | STARRING: FELICITY JONES, ARMIE HAMMER, STEPHEN ROOT, SAM WATERSTON | REVIEW BY GLENN COCHRANE.
Unlike last years's brilliant documentary RBG, which chronicled her entire career, ON THE BASIS OF SEX hones its focus on one particular integral moment when she faced the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case of gender-based discrimination against a middle aged man who was denied government assistance to care for his ailing mother. Ginsburg used this case of discrimination to establish a new prescient, which would lead to the repeal of hundreds of similarly outdated laws based on sex.
Given the magnitude of Ruth Ginsburg's story and her influence on an entire social movement, there was never a snowflake's chance in hell that a feature length film would be able to articulate her story sincerely, and so the decision to highlight just one fundamental moment was a wise one, with the impact being being enhanced for it. I recall walking away from the documentary feeing energised and motivated by what I had seen, and for most women who saw it I can imagine they felt empowered. Those are the emotional responses of the documentary format, with testimonials and first hand accounts of her trials and tribulations reenforcing the truth of her story.
The response to ON THE BASIS OF SEX is different; it's manufactured and manipulated with less restraint... as it should be of course, and as the opening credits played and director Mimi Leder's name adorned the screen, I was caught off guard. As with many films I walk into the cinema with little knowledge of their production, as not to form a pre-conceived bias, and Leder's name is one that I associate with melodrama and schmaltz. I immediately suspected that the following two-hours might be heavy-handed and contrived, worried that I was about to experience the Mrs Holland's Opus-effect.
And true enough the film is very heavy-handed and adheres to a very strict formula. As it is with most legal dramas, the legal system is – well... systematic. It's a robust setting with little room to spread, and so ON THE BASIS OF SEX plays out like most legal films before it. But rather than tell Ginsburg's story tonally, the way – for example – that North Country did, it's given that classic Hollywood flavour with a vibrant production design and graceless music, that almost throws back to cinema of the 1950s. Mycheal Dann's score is a whimsical extravagance, which upsets the film's attitude and detracts from the unfolding drama. Ginsburg's successes and failures are accompanied by this misjudged musical score that seems obliged to react with her every move. This is, in my mind, the film's crux.
With all of that said, there is no denying the strength of the cast with Felicity Jones handing over a consummate performance as the young and idealistic law graduate. Where she lacks a physical resemblance to Ruth Ginsburg she makes up for with a tenacious attitude that is true to the character we know from our daily newsfeeds and the preceding documentary. Her supporting cast is a brilliant ensemble including Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey and Kathy Bates. They all bring gravitas to the otherwise sugary depiction, with the men playing to the era superbly. A notable mention to Jack Reynor, a fantastic actor who previously impressed me in Glasshouse and Sing Street. His place in this film suggests an impending push on Hollywood, which is most welcome.
And so despite its foibles ON THE BASIS OF SEX is, nevertheless, an entertaining addition to the growing list of socially driven bio-pics. It might fail to resonate the way it should – like the similarly themed Eric Brockovich - but it will speak to a generation of women who are part of the fight. It plays for an emotional response, which is fine, but never attempts to scratch beneath the surface of the women's rights movement. In that sense the film slots in nicely with other recent feminist titles like Miss Sloane, The Divine Order and Hidden Figures. All safe but never challenging or provocative.