On the Basis of Sex is a legal biopic that does little justice to the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; a pioneer in the field of gender-based discrimination law in the United States.
Based in the 1950’s, the film explores Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) from her early days at Harvard to her first high profile attempt at achieving legal reform in the US Senate.
Jones exhibits the same reserved strength that led to her Best Actress Academy Award nomination for The Theory of Everything (2014), however, her performance is hindered thanks to a sensationalised account of Ginsburg’s achievements, which bears all the trimmings of a Lifetime movie that functions on manipulative gripes to provoke eye-rolls and scoffs.
At the detriment of the film’s tone, On the Basis of Sex is a film preoccupied at inciting arguments over discussion, resulting in scenes exploring the complexities of male fragility and feminism being dampened.
Where there could have been opportunity for the screenplay to maturely explore Ginsburg’s ability to rationalise complex law to the betterment of American society, the film instead conveys the inequity of the time as a series of scenes involving characters reacting to retorts by staring blankly into space and a wave of men in grey suits walking into buildings.
Contrived writing aside, the quality of On the Basis of Sex does not speak to the substantial contribution Ginsburg has made in the fight for gender equality, with the shortfalls of the film being amplified further courtesy of a release date that closely follows a much better account of Ginsburg’s achievements in the 2018 documentary RBG.
Armie Hammer gets the chance to play an actual gentleman of Harvard in a husband role that limits his character as a supporting mechanism that frequently grants Ginsburg agency. Other characters in the fold don’t add much more than being detractors of Ginsburg with their smarmy dialogue contributing to the film having a condescending air to it.
Despite having a rightful anger towards the injustices of the past and present, On the Basis of Sex is a film determined to make its point as a string of stinging-jabs that ultimately prevents it from adding anything new to the conversation.
Natalie Portman was attached to star as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for at least 4 years as the project was stuck in development. She eventually dropped out and was replaced by Felicity Jones.