Director Mimi Leder lends all her professional experience as a filmmaker to On the Basis of Sex, which, nonetheless, still plays like a fairly straightforward Hollywood portrait of a woman who achieves a breakthrough legal victory, thanks to the invaluable help and support of her husband and daughter.
Still, the strength and importance of the story makes it vital and compelling to watch.
Written by Daniel Stiepleman, Leder’s new film moves at a good pace, introducing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) as she arrives, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1956, where the all-male faculty and nearly all-male student body endeavor to put her in ‘her place,’ as they perceive that to be from their masculine perspective.
Already married with a child at home, Ruth is more than up to that challenge and consistently fights against the discrimination she faces. One class year behind her husband, Martin (Armie Hammer), she follows him back to New York City, where she was raised, after he secures a position as an attorney upon graduation.
When she graduates, however, Ruth is unable to find any law firm willing to hire her, despite her sterling scholarship. Instead, she reluctantly accepts an offer to become a law-school professor, where she spends the next decade.
Time-jumping to the early 1970s, we see that the oldest Ginsburg child, Jane (Cailee Spaeny, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Bad Times at the El Royale), has become an outspoken young woman, pushing back against all authority figures, including her parents. Her daughter’s speech and actions startle Ruth, as she is forced to confront the realization that, yes, times have changed. What will she do about it?
The balance of the film focuses on the case that made Ginsburg’s career, as she fought against gender discrimination. In the process, she also regained the strong voice she had muted over the previous decade or so. Much of the credit for re-awakening Ruth goes to her supportive husband and feisty daughter.
Of course, this all begins with the screenplay’s point of view, offered by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew. He wrote the screenplay in 2012; the judge reportedly gave notes to her nephew on the script. How far the film diverges from the truth is not the issue here; rather, there is a natural kindness given to the subjects that is completely understandable, considering the circumstances.
In the hand of director Mimi Leder, On the Basis of Sex is a very watchable drama, even if it sometimes feels as though everyone was walking on eggshells so as to not offend. Leder’s impressive directing career has spanned decades, from episodes of L.A. Law, Crime Story, China Beach and E.R., through to big-screen spectacles such as The Peacemaker and Deep Impact, and more recently, episodes of the U.S. small-screen shows Shameless and The Leftovers.
Jones gives a strong performance as Ginsburg. Because the film is set during her earlier years, it’s much easier to allow Jones to imprint herself on the character, even if her American accent appears to waver at times. Hammer is strong, very likable, and the more naturally witty partner, which appears to correlate with real life.
Cailee Spaeny makes a very positive impression as Jane Ginsburg; it’s a meaty role and she handles it ably, creating in Jane an argumentative yet polite and sensitive presence. Other supporting performers tend to ham it up, including Justin Theroux as a cocky civil rights lawyer, Sam Waterston as a boorish authority figure, Jack Reynor as a prideful young lawyer, Stephen Root as a self-confident lawyer, and Kathy Bates as a legendary civil rights attorney. Chris Mulkey brings tender pathos to his role as Ginsburg’s trusting, eventual client.
In summary, your honor, On the Basis of Sex is a satisfying, feel-good drama that feels like it hews close to the thrust of the case at hand. Judgment for the moviegoer.
The film opens in Dallas theaters on Tuesday, December 25.