On the Basis of Sex film review: Felicity Jones performance a standout

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex.
Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex.

THIS slick and shiny biopic offers an engaging but straightforward look at how lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) won her first case to overturn one of many gender discriminatory US laws.

In 1956, Ruth is one of only a handful of women enrolled in Harvard Law and proves her prowess when she not only excels in her classes, but also attends her husband Martin’s (Armie Hammer) classes after he’s diagnosed with testicular cancer.

After Ruth tries and fails to get a job because no law firm will hire a woman, the film jumps forward to 1970 where she is working as a professor at Columbia University, teaching a much more gender and racially diverse class than during her time as a student.

She tells them about lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, who argued in court that a woman convicted by an all-male jury should have been allowed one that included women, but she lost because the court did not believe gender discrimination was a real thing.

Her husband is working as a tax attorney when he shows Ruth a case.

Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) has been denied a tax deduction for the nursing care costs of his elderly mother because the deduction is limited to a woman or a man who is, or has been married – and he was never married.

Ruth sees this as her chance to prove US laws do discriminate ‘on the basis of sex’.

It is easy to hate the antagonists in this film, mostly male lawyers spewing obvious sexist rhetoric, and it is easy to cheer for Ruth with the hindsight of knowing gender equality is closer to being a reality decades later.

Although many would say, we still have a long way to go.

This makes for a satisfying viewing experience as good conquers evil, but does not provide a nuanced or rounded depiction.

Jones’ performance is a standout, with doubts at her own ability as a lawyer and arguments with daughter Jane balancing her utter earnestness to do right.

But from the pristine, unworn-looking costumes and sets to Hammer’s impossibly nice and supportive Martin, to a script packed with inspirational one liners, it is hard to feel these are real people – even though they are.

On the Basis of Sex offers an informative look at the early life of an important American figure, but struggles to offer anything more.

THE ESSENTIALS

On the Basis of Sex (M)

Directed by: Mimi Leder

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux

Three and a half stars

Review by Lucy Rutherford

In cinemas now