The Theory of Everything’s Felicity Jones stars in this impressively brainy dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rise to legal prominence in the 1970s.
Thinkers debate with passion in Mimi Leder’s intellectual On the Basis of Sex, a knowingly old-fashioned (but far from dated) biopic of the inimitable Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Written by the 85-year-old Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman with affection for his aunt’s lifelong work on behalf of women’s rights—as well as her decidedly ennobled marriage founded on pure equality—On the Basis of Sex (like the stirring documentary RBG) is both a welcome cinematic dissent from today’s disastrous politics and a reminder that words, paired with meaningful action, can change the world.
A winning, inspirational crowd-pleaser à la Hidden Figures, Leder’s film follows the early accomplishments of the young Ginsburg (an assured Felicity Jones, convincingly slipping into the trailblazer’s shoes), beginning in 1956. That’s the year in which the bouncy, opinionated Ruth marches into male-dominated Harvard Law School—at a dinner party, the handful of female students are asked to justify their academic seats, ones that could have gone to “Harvard Men.” It’s also where her devoted, ever-supportive husband Marty (Armie Hammer, lovably pragmatic) studies.
Through Marty’s unforeseen health crisis and Ruth’s unfairly deterred professional aspirations (excuse after sexist excuse, law firms refuse to hire her), the film patiently advances toward the ’70s, focusing on the couple’s family life and Ruth’s career as a professor, leading sizzling feminist discourse among razor-sharp minds of the era. The script’s centerpiece is a pivotal sex-discrimination case that launched RBG’s legal legacy in earnest: Working with her tax-attorney husband, she represents Denver-based Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), a kindly man caring for his ailing mother but denied the proper tax deductions by an archaic law that declares only women can be primary caregivers.
Well-paced and directed with gusto, On the Basis of Sex finds an accessible, near-perfect tone, balancing serious courtroom drama and frequent legal jargon with tastefully Hollywood-ized emotional embellishments. Playing Ginsburg’s liberated teenage daughter Jane, Cailee Spaeny inflames some of the film’s most memorable moments as the voice of a younger generation sparking a renewed sense of feminism. It’s uplifting stuff but not in the least bit escapist: If anything, Leder’s film civilly urges us to face today’s injustices head-on, armed with conviction and a steady gaze.
Cast and crew