On The Basis Of Sex (2019) fails to make its case

Lightweight, superficial and oddly unfocused, this biopic of celebrated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might qualify as a legal brief but it fails to assemble a substantive case despite the abundance of available evidence.

The film charts her rise from freshman law student at Yale, through her professorship and advocacy up to her pivotal legal challenge Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue which paved the way for the systematic dismantling of legal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Although handsomely staged and well acted, the movie seems more interested in those around its title character than the woman herself. Well played by Felicity Jones, the script often portrays her as the product of the behaviour and actions of those around her, particularly her husband and daughter than necessarily having agency herself.

Armie Hammer may or may not be destined to answer the Batsignal, but never fear because he’s here to answer the virtue signal as the focus-stealing Martin Ginsburg, arguably the main character of a movie which sets out to repeatedly show him as the admirable, ahead-of-his-time supportive new man whose courageous struggle with testicular cancer and subsequent building of a lucrative tax career is told against the backdrop of the groundbreaking civil rights work of his wife.

When the film isn’t busy lionising Martin Ginsburg, it spends a lot of time focussing on the forces ranged against RGB’s ongoing crusade and I doubt that this movie will do very well in terms of measuring the gender split of dialogue that the recent Best Picture Oscar Winners have been subject to. All too often we’re told of Ruth’s intelligence, incisiveness and mastery of her subject – usually by the men – rather than shown it and it’s only in the last few minutes of the film do we really get to see the kind of wit, wisdom and legal acumen that will eventually propel her to the Supreme Court.

There seems to be a hesitance to get stuck into its subject or protagonist and as a result, it’s kind of dutifully procedural while lacking any real drama:  a courtroom drama that’s reluctant to have its day in court.

In a way, it’s kind of endearing that this RBG-endorsed biopic (she cameos as herself at the very end) is a hagiography of her late husband rather than providing any real insight into her life and feelings so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re probably better off watching the Cohen/ West documentary “RBG”.


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