On the Basis of Sex: battling through a man’s world

Ruth Bader Ginsberg biopic shows how Felicity Jones and feminism can bring a legal drama to life

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2014
The face of a woman.
Source: imdb.com

With the recent releases of The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots, Hollywood appears to be taking an ever-increasing interest in the stories of strong female figures plucked from history. On the Basis of Sex arrives as part of this welcome influx of female-led films, its heroine the legal and gender parity icon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones). The film is a biopic which begins with her first day at Harvard Law School and rushes to its the dramatic core: the landmark tax appeal for unmarried male carer Charles Moritz in 1970. This case saw the beginning of her role in overturning U.S. laws based on sex discrimination.

While the film takes its title from Bader Ginsburg’s work on legal gender bias, the theme of sex discrimination pervades its entire two-hour running time. This preoccupation is established in its beautiful opening frame: the bright blue of Bader Ginsburg’s dress as she walks up the Harvard stairs induces a stark colour contrast with the darkly-suited mass of men with her, highlighting the gender imbalance of a 1950s law school intake. Merely a few scenes later, Bader Ginsburg and her female peers will be asked by the dean why they have “taken a man’s place” at Harvard.

The education-based chapter of the film highlights Bader Ginsburg’s personal struggle against institutional discrimination (such as being almost farcically ignored in class), before jumping to law firms rejecting her for being female, then abruptly fast-forwarding to her stint as a law professor at Rutgers University in 1970. These time jumps preclude a more in-depth exploration of Bader Ginsburg’s struggles with sexism in her early career and the transition from the 1950s to the 1970s – an otherwise fascinating period for women’s rights. The few scenes in which these issues are expressed are evocative and effective vignettes, but the lack of more intense exploration renders this beginning somewhat superficial.

While director Mimi Leder does a good job in steering scenes fecund for schmaltz away from the saccharine, the implied relationship between Bader Ginsburg’s motivation and the opinions of her teenage daughter, Jane (played with passionate teenage aplomb by Cailee Spaeny), is overdone. It comes across as both oversentimental and patronising to Bader Ginsburg. Yet Leder cleverly suggests that the cresting of second-wave feminism catalysed Bader Ginsburg’s motivation to fight against sex-based discrimination.

Once the film reaches its primary storyline of the Moritz case, the pace slows down. It is a testament to Leder that despite knowing the outcome of the case, the dramatic tension as to its result remains. While the film retains its historical integrity in not over-dramatising or elongating the courtroom scene, it is an inspirational and thought-provoking twenty minutes that it is worth seeing this film for alone.

While perhaps not an obvious choice to play Bader Ginsburg, Felicity Jones deftly evokes her calm determination and intellectual ferocity. Although Bader-Ginsburg is clearly the protagonist of her own biopic, the film must also be applauded for its skilful handling of the relationship between Bader Ginsburg and her husband (Armie Hammer). Leder manages the difficult balance of presenting a mutually loving and respectful relationship in a prominent way, without making it a distracting element of the narrative. Ultimately, this film is a thoughtful tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg which deserves a careful viewing.

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