Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex is everything you would expect from a biographical portrayal of the turbulences faced in the search of gender equality. However, meeting this expectation is precisely what fails to challenge and define a new cinematic experience. While this film will not be remembered for its innovation, it will undoubtedly inspire you to hit the books and change the world.
The story follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a young Harvard law student, through a journey of discrimination and seclusion to her victory as Supreme Court Justice. While the writing by Daniel Stiepleman, her nephew, was motivating and a true credit to Ginsburg’s passion and persistence, it at times felt like a simple re-telling of a story most are familiar with. The story itself of the female struggle is easily replaceable, but the real power of the film was Leder’s ability to take audiences on the highs and lows of not only female emancipation, but also the moments of rare emotional vulnerability. Scenes of defeat and loss were interestingly more powerful than the argumentative sides of Ginsburg; it allowed audiences to see flashes of her hidden helplessness that shone through the cracks of a seemingly "hard-arse".
Leder ensured the audiences resonated with Ginsburg through a refined and unique exposé of moments that gave us a taste of hope and success before painfully pulling the rug from beneath us. A particular interview left me crestfallen as an employer initially seemed to understand her struggle and even encouraged her through jokes and anecdotes to share her anger. Finally! The typical white middle class man was not sitting idly by soaking up his privilege – he might actually help her! But, of course, this is too good to be true. This is a narrative we are clearly all familiar with, but it is in Leder’s execution that the audience follow her pain and pleasure.
While the story itself lacked distinct revolutionary writing, the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer were undeniable. Jones, claiming she had ‘waited for a role like this’, certainly did the strong-willed, empowered and educated woman justice. Her firm, and at times aggressive conviction, companied by the close, narrow camera angles, presented her as a force to be reckoned with.
Leder skilfully teased this side of Ginsburg out from one of the very first scenes. Particularly during the Harvard dinner with the dean’s patronising attempt to honour the nine women at Harvard, Ginsburg cheekily explained that she was simply studying law to be a better wife. Subtle moments like this, written with a careful balance of the humour and frustration, are the little gems that make it impossible not to love Jones’ portrayal of her character. So, while the writing of the bio-pic was far from radical or ground breaking, the real art was in the subtle ways sexism prevailed in every day life.
Leder utilised Jones delicate and feminine appearance in Ginsburg’s younger years to present a carefully crafted rebuttals to her older male colleagues, alluding to the disruption that Ginsburg would become famous for throughout the film. Jones was masterfully able to capture moments of heart-breaking defeat, particularly in the turning point of the film, where Ginsburg was outshined by her husband, Marty, a much admired tax lawyer. Therefore, it must be credited that Leder did not just show Ginsburg to be a ready-made female fighting machine, but in fact, at times, a defeated and insecure woman who wanted a better future for her daughter – something which Jones manifested beautifully.
Equally, Armie Hammer (playing Ginsburg's husband) pulled at our heart-strings immediately from the attachment and bond we create with his character. His moving performance made the heart-breaking encounter his character faces even more tragic for the audiences. Without too many spoilers, the touching scene of the couple together on the hospital bed, opened my eyes to the humanity and affection that was hidden beneath Ruth’s freedom fighting confrontational attitude the audience are used to. The image of the couple is the perfect visual representation of how they seamlessly fit together.
And while we all know that behind every strong man is a strong woman, Armie Hammer’s charming and idealistic portrayal made it clear how fundamentally important he was, both emotionally and professionally, to the success of Ginsburg. Stiepleman, captured the astute relationship dynamic of an equal and romantic partnership behind closed doors, yet cleverly showed that for Ruth, to have achieved anything during the 70s, her husband’s charisma and contacts would be a definite asset. Leder never failed to reinforce the air of sexism throughout the film, from the opening scene in which Ginsburg was the only woman in a floating baby blue skirt, engulfed by a pool of men in black suites, to a job interview in which she was rejected and blatantly sexualised.
Perhaps the story’s lack of invention has the potential to make it replaceable, but the beautifully performed film concerning the female trial and tribulations, with a fitting soundtrack by Mychael Danna, fuelled by legal conflicts and political tension, somewhat redeemed it. This film fulfilled the need for an instant gratification movie to create a spark of inspiration inside you