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Film review: On the Basis of Sex

Film & TV

Cultural icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka The Notorious RBG) is given the Hollywood treatment in this fascinating biopic of a woman ahead of her time and at the top of her game.

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With just the right blend of factual accuracy and artful story-telling, On the Basis of Sex is a timely celebration of one woman’s fight for gender equality.

At 85, Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg is arguably the most famous judge in the world, but the road to her current iconic status has been anything but smooth.

Having fought her own battles in the male-dominated film industry, director Mimi Leder depicts Ginsburg’s struggle with the empathy and insight of a woman who knows the thickness of ceiling-glass. Tiny yet constant put-downs jostle with more glaring discriminations throughout the film and visual cues elegantly reflect the gender imbalance.

Ginsburg (played by British actor Felicity Jones) first appears as a splash of blue in the sea of grey suits ascending the steps of Harvard Law School. She’s one of only nine women in her year and no sooner is she through the door than she’s asked to explain why she’s “occupying a place that could have gone to a man”.

Though her portrayal is more understated than commanding, Jones carries the role with dignity and spirit. Her brisk stride and defiant pout are synonymous with Ginsburg’s strength and determination as she perseveres at Harvard, even attending extra classes for her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), when he gets sick with testicular cancer.

Ginsburg graduates at the top of her class but this isn’t enough to get her a job as a lawyer in the sexist ’60s. Without a hint of irony, she’s told by one firm that hiring her would make the wives of the male employees jealous.

Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman balances scenes from Ginsburg’s early career with snapshots of family life. Stiepleman is, in fact, Ginsburg’s nephew and his fondness for his aunt is evident in the portrayal. However, he doesn’t shy away from the difficult relationship between RBG and her teenage daughter Jane (the wonderfully sparky Cailee Spaeny).

The final scenes are devoted to Ginsburg’s ground-breaking 1972 case where she effectively put an end to legalised discrimination against women by defending a case against a man.

What’s most remarkable in these scenes is that the combined talents of Stiepleman and Leder turn the nitty-gritty of the legal intricacies into gripping courtroom drama. The subtle pacing and clever to-and-fro of the script has the audience fully engaged, despite the complexities of the legal arguments.

In a neat little backflip, the final scene mirrors the opening one: this time Notorious herself appears in a cameo role, ascending the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a confronting reminder of how far she has come, indeed how far society has come, thanks (in part) to her achievements. It’s hard not to break into rapturous applause.

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