Movie review / ‘On The Basis of Sex’ (M) *** and a half

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Felicity Jones in “On The Basis of Sex”… standing front and centre in virtually every sequence in the film.

SIX months ago, I gave four stars to the documentary “RBG”, describing it as “family portrait and professional CV of an unexpected pop culture icon”.

At that time Mimi Leder’s biographical film written by Daniel Stiepleman dealing with the early life and burgeoning career of RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) may well have been filming. It’s a re-enactment of a young wife and mother, determined to become a lawyer, from the 1959 class at Harvard Law School to winning a landmark judgement in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dry, wordy stuff? All those libraries filled with statutes and law reports and prestigious journals to master? Where’s the action, the suspense, the conflict, the tension, those elements that every law student must master before being let loose on clients seeking judgement or defence? And which together with basic humanity also form the basis of every cinema box-office hit.

Leder and Stiepleman deliver those well enough in a two-hour movie canvassing significant events in Ginsburg’s early private, academic and professional lives to a climax telling how the Tenth Court of Appeals overturned a Taxation Court decision denying her male client the right to funding that would have been made available to a woman in the same circumstances.

English actress Felicity Jones carries “On The Basis of Sex”, standing front and centre in virtually every sequence in the film. Armie Hammer plays her husband and Justin Theroux is American Civil Liberty Union boss Mel Wulf. Sam Waterston plays Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School at the time when Ruth, already a Cornell graduate, began her law course. Griswold, an ultra-conservative, later US Solicitor General, noted that the US Constitution makes no reference to women whom he believed belonged at home, and that success of the ACLU campaign would rip the fabric of American society to shreds. After a year at Harvard, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School.

Bill Clinton appointed Ruth, after a stellar career in law, legal education and legal scholarship, to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. And before Mimi Leder released her film, Ruth walked up to the camera on the forecourt of the Supreme Court in Washington, as if to say: “This film gets it right.”

At Dendy, Palace Electric, Capitol 6, Hoyts Woden and Limelight

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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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