On the Basis of Sex

Rating: 2

By Jason Solomons

The documentary RBG, which I reviewed here a few months ago, was Oscar-nominated; this stodgy, glossy, starry biopic wasn’t. And that’s a fair outcome. 

The documentary captures the person and the personality of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in all her twinkly intelligence while her work is revered for its moral seriousness, ambition and intellectual bravery.

This movie, starring Felicity Jones, doesn’t do the Justice full justice. My main gripe is that Jones isn’t perfect casting - she’s small and bright but lacks the spark here that she had in, say, The Theory of Everything. She always looks like she’s trying not to spill something. 

Also, and I’ve no idea if I’m allowed to say this (but if not me, then who?) Felicity Jones isn’t Jewish, and I think it’s this that’s missing - she really doesn’t convey RBG’s Jewish side, something that comes across very warmly and importantly in the doc. 

Can an actress who isn’t Jewish even play a Jewish woman these days, in these politically correct times? I mean, there’s always a fuss if a Caucasian Hollywood star plays a Japanese character (see Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone in the swiftly-buried Aloha, a thank God ‘black face’ is a thing of the past), so, in this instance, I’m objecting to Felicity’s casting - not because she’s isn’t a fine actress but because doesn’t fully intuit the Jewishness of a woman brought up in Brooklyn in
the 1930s.

Look. This isn’t a bad movie, just rather plodding, where RBG herself is so spry, even now at 85. Starting at Harvard Law School in 1956, Mimi Leder’s film glides through a few cliches such as the practically compulsory lecture hall scene in which young Ruth proves she’s smarter than the boorish flop haired boys, and far better prepared with her case research. 

Armie Hammer provides easy-going support as husband Marty, particularly in the kitchen, while he’s also the benign guiding hand who tips Ruth the wink about the Illinois tax case she eventually champions, in the 1970s, all the way to the Supreme Court and which begins tipping the law away from discriminating on the basis of sex. It’s a case which gives Ruth the bedrock of precedent on which she will base her rise to the highest position in the Supreme Court over 20 years later, a rise dealt with in a post-script over the closing credits.

The film itself progresses in an elegant enough fashion - actually, the period fashions seem all to natty to me, too smart and clean -  but doesn’t fully harness the inspirational aspect of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work or character. In trying to remain faithful to facts and history, the period dressing and posters may look right but there’s a lack of dramatic tension and no distinctive, intellectual edge. 

The scenes of the stern-faced old white judges harrumphing about a woman’s place being in the home and then slowly smiling at this defiant little lady in front of them feel as cliched as they are patronising.