Film Review: On the Basis of Sex (USA, 2018) shows us how justice prevailed for the Notorious RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an American Supreme court justice who has been dubbed, “The Notorious RBG.” This woman in an incredible one so it should come as no surprise that in the past few years she has inspired not one, but two films. RBG was a comprehensive documentary about her life while the latest offering is: On the Basis of Sex. The latter sees the scales of justice flip between a standard bio-pic format and a courtroom drama with both good and bad results.

Justice Ginsberg has accomplished so much you could argue that there is enough material to fill several books or films about her life. The screen play for On the Basis of Sex was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. He was perhaps a little too close to the subject matter because the script is an uneven one that shoe-horns too much stuff into its two hour run-time. There is some legalese in the dialogue and you get the sense he wants to get things right by his family. This means conveying RBG’s many roles i.e. student, wife, mother, lawyer, professor, human rights activist and Supreme Court justice.

Veteran TV director, Mimi Leder performs her work with a sensitive hand for this production. The story is certainly a worthy one and is even more important as the world is impacted by Trump’s America. Unfortunately, this biopic is quite a bog-standard and serviceable one for such a unique and impressive character.

Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) stars as the diminutive but fierce Ginsberg. The latter is intelligent with an impeccable work ethic. It’s a hard role and while Jones gives a good performance, it could have been bettered somewhat. While Jones is pleasant enough to watch, she doesn’t exude the same charisma as the real RBG. This fact is proven at the end of the film when Ginsberg makes what proves to be a powerful cameo.

Armie Hammer (Call Me by Your Name) plays RBG’s supportive and loving husband, Martin. Hammer and Jones have very little on-screen chemistry. Martin is a tax attorney who helps RBG discover a career-changing case. It’s a sex discrimination one involving the IRS. The tax office had disallowed a deduction made by a single male who was a caregiver for his ill mother. This was despite the fact that women were legally able to make these deductions at the time. RBG argued this case in the Supreme Court – where she was eventually appointed to the bench – setting a legal precedent for further challenges to discriminatory laws.

RBG’s history is complex and it can be approached from numerous angles. For this film, it’s a stylish period drama. It looks at the entrenched bias and the patriarchal culture of the time. RBG is an inspiration and a worthy role model for future generations of women and men. This is the case even if the film glosses over her later career and isn’t always fit to hold a candle to its astonishing subject.

There is no question that Justice Ginsberg was a game changer even if On the Basis of Sex is not. This film is a pleasant but rather rote-telling of an amazing woman who achieved so much, even with some unfair scales stacked against her. On the Basis of Sex ultimately focuses on RBG’s biggest case and shows us all how she got her first of many days in court.


On The Basis of Sex opens in cinemas nationally on February 6.

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