Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Given the present and on-going conversations about the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, it can be easy to forget just how much progress women’s rights have seen in the last few generations. In American, women won the right to vote less than a century ago, and legally-supported discrimination on the basis of gender was pervasive well into the twentieth century. And although her recent renaissance as a pop culture icon may emphasize her important role in the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg built her professional reputation by dismantling sex-based discrimination one court case at a time.
On the Basis of Sex reaches back to Ginsburg’s days as a young mother and law student at Harvard, when women were asked to justify their taking the place of a deserving male student. Despite a strong work ethic and talent for the coursework, Ginsburg (played with verve, and a spotty accent, by Felicity Jones) faces routine, inescapable sexism from her classmates and professors. When her husband Martin (Armie Hammer)—also a law student—receives a cancer diagnosis, she attends both their classes while he copes with the treatment.
This devotion earns her no quarter from the attitudes of the time, however, and she’s forced to transfer to Columbia after Martin accepts a job in New York City. (A male student earned a Harvard degree while attending his third year of classes elsewhere not long before Ginsburg’s petition, but the dean insists their circumstances were quite incomparable.) When her professional reception is as politely cool as her academic one, Ginsburg settles into a teaching position at Rutgers, where her frustration at a lack of impact on the world festers and grows.
An opportunity to change that comes in the form of a legal brief brought to her attention by Martin: a single man (Chris Mulkey), never married, was denied a caregiver tax deduction because the IRS code only allowed women, widowers, and male divorcees to claim it. Partnering with an old friend now working with the ACLU, Ginsburg sees her chance to argue the illegality of sex-based discrimination, this time with a male victim who might have greater appeal to the court.
On the Basis of Sex allows ample opportunity for righteous indignation: certainly in any female audience member and (one hopes) any man in attendance as well. Much of the backwards logic and outdated sentiment regarding the roles of men and women will feel depressingly recognizable to many watching, despite modern society’s striving towards equality. There are a few moments of cartoonish Bond villainy, though, that detract from the seriousness of the message. At one point, the Department of Justice legal team sits in a dark room, smoking cigars and discussing how best to bring about Ginsburg’s downfall — too on the nose, for a moral that sells itself.
With a script that settles for inoffensive, generically pleasing inspiration, it’s the performances that provide all the charm. Despite her odd and wandering accent, Jones brings a combination of fire and frustration to Ginsburg that makes her instantly relatable. Hammer manages not to bungle the role of her husband; his admirers will likely be pleased at another role for him, while his detractors should find themselves only mildly distracted. Kathy Bates and Law & Order’s Sam Waterston both make minor appearances as a women’s rights attorney and the Dean of Harvard Law respectively, an overall pleasing pair of extended cameos.
While there’s nothing particularly unique or challenging about On the Basis of Sex, it’s chosen the right time to tell the right story, which is more commendable than some might think.