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Review: On The Basis Of Sex

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Mimi Leder’s On The Basis of Sex Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second film about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg this year, following the recent doc RBG. With a legacy of decades of glass ceiling-smashing in the US legal system and advocating for gender equality behind her, too right there are two films about the Associate  Justice of the United States Supreme Court almost back to back in cinemas.

This film is an elegant but fairly standard biopic that sticks closely to the surface of the first legal case RBG took on.

We open with a young Ruth (Felicity Jones) fighting everyday sexism as one of the first cohort of women at Harvard Law School. Though it’s the 1950s,  equality rules in the Bader-Ginsburg household, husband Marty (Armie Hammer) supports Ruth’s legal ambitions instead of being threatened by them. The screenplay was written by Ruth-Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, and the film feels like a loving tribute to the Ginsburgs.

But it’s the 1970s in NYC where RBG begins to make her mark, having taken a job in teaching law in lieu of opportunities to practice it, Ruth walks past protesters, and debates with her students, favouring advocacy over activism as the case of change, something her teenage daughter doesn’t buy.

The film tells more than it shows and, a lot of the dialogue is quite on-the-nose. But a cocktail-party exchange about marriage and tax laws is well paced, and entertaining, styled and set up like a Mad Men episode. It’s also the catalyst Ruth needs. In order to address sex discrimination in US law, she finds how it impacted on a man. The wronged man in question is Charles M Moritz, disqualified from deducting the tax for nursing support to help care for his mother because he’s an unmarried man.

Supporting characters come and go in an orderly, archetypal fashion: rebellious teenage daughter (here, your honour), angry guardians of the patriarchy (here, your honour), and a  light-comic turn from Justin Theroux as the ACLU’s legal director Melf Wulf, Kath Bates rings out as much as she can from thin material as RBG’s feminist hero Dorothy Kenyon too.

But by the time Ruth and Martin Ginsburg step up as co-counsels to have their day in court, (The U.S. Court of Appeals)  it’s hard not to get a bit swept along with them. The scenes may dial up the schmaltz (as does the film as a whole), but it also creates enough space to appreciate what a big moment this was for gender parity.  A sentimental, but entertaining salute to the power of persistence and marginal gains in the pursuit of a more progressive society.

On The Basis of Sex is released on 22nd February.

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