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On the Basis of Sex

Celebrating the early years of US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg's career, this biopic takes a conventional approach but does its subject justice.
By Sarah Ward
February 07, 2019
By Sarah Ward
February 07, 2019

UPDATE, September 24, 2020: On the Basis of Sex is available to stream via Binge, Foxtel Now, Google Play and YouTube Movies.


For the second time in the past year, Ruth Bader Ginsburg graces the silver screen. On the Basis of Sex might come hot on the heels of 2018's Oscar-nominated documentary RBG, but this won't be the last time its subject gets the cinema treatment. The celebrated US Supreme Court Justice also pops up as a mini-figure in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, which sums up her current status — Ginsburg isn't just one of America's current top judges, or a pioneering legal champion, but a pop culture icon as well. As the years keep passing, filmmakers will keep telling her tale, simply because there's just that much to tell. The first dramatised version of Ginsburg's life, On the Basis of Sex focuses on her early career, but consider it merely the beginning in several senses of the word.

Before achieving her current professional and popular standing, as well as her 'Notorious RBG' nickname, Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) was one of the first women accepted into Harvard Law School. But while she shared the top spot in her graduating class — a feat she managed while helping her unwell husband Martin (Armie Hammer) through his legal studies and raising the couple's children — job offers didn't follow. In 50s and 60s America, firms were openly reluctant to hire a female attorney. It's this type of engrained, everyday sexism that steels Ginsburg for the battle that she's now synonymous with. Rallying against legislation that discriminates on the basis of sex, Ginsburg made her name crusading for gender equality, as director Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward) and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (the Justice's nephew) chronicle.

On the Basis of Sex could've drawn from decades of material, however narrowing the film's focus is a savvy choice. So is highlighting one particular 1972 case, where Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) was denied a tax refund for costs related to caring for his ailing mother. With Ruth largely ignored in her quest to expose the inequitable standing of women, both Ginsburgs knew they had something special when they discovered a man being overlooked and discriminated against in the same way. It was her first case of its kind, but the fact that the future judge made a splash with this matter — fighting for a man taking on a traditionally female task — makes an enormous, damning statement about US society at the time.

There's much that incites anger in On the Basis of Sex, from the dismissive treatment meted out to Ginsburg time and time again, to the male-dominated domain that she's forced to navigate — an attitude that wasn't just widely accepted, but was solidified in law. There's much in the movie that inspires, too, not only including Ginsburg herself, but her marriage with Martin. Leder proves patient and poignant with her direction, displaying immense reverence for Ginsburg, all that she's faced and everything that she represents, yet never feeling the need to over-stress the importance of the future judge's achievements. The narrative's details do the talking, while the craft of the film remains restrained and respectful. It's the standard broad, celebratory biopic framework, complete with gentle pacing, warm hues and handsome imagery, but in recreating the life of someone with such quiet, commanding power, it works.

This may be a prestige portrait through and through, but it's effective. The fact that the movie's central double-act thoroughly hit their marks also assists. Jones brings determination and assurance to her starring part, Hammer plays Martin as thoughtfully aware of the challenges blighting his wife's career, and together they make a winning team through the story's ups and downs. While it's infuriating that it took a man's case to spark Ginsburg's rise to prominence, the support that she receives from Martin doesn't evoke the same response. Crucially, however, this isn't a tale about a noble man standing behind a great woman, but of a partnership that helped Ruth overcome obstacles that were never even an issue for her husband. Of course, On the Basis of Sex never forgets who its paying tribute to, not even for a moment.

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