Feb 2nd, 2019, 08:08 PM

Film Review: On the Basis of Sex

By Tatum McDonald
On the Basis of Sex poster. Image Credit: Focus Features
The film about the Notorious R.B.G. that shows just how far we've come.

On the Basis of Sex, or Une Femme d'Exception as it is known in France, is the most recent project of director Mimi Leder. It recounts the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and how she paved the way for the women who came after her. Justice Ginsburg is played by Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, who is known for her work in The Theory of Everything and Rouge One: A Star Wars Story. With a screenplay written by Ginsburg's nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, the film feels remarkably authentic and seems to breathe as if it were a living thing.

Jones masterfully captures the quiet strength and determination that defines Ginsburg's public persona. The story follows Ginsburg through her stint at Harvard, her relationship with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), her unfruitful job search, and the case that jump-starts her career. The trials she faces seem both otherworldly, yet eerily comparable to problems women face today. It has been over two decades since Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and while there are more women in positions of power than ever before, they are often still judged on things deemed unimportant when it comes to their male counterparts. While these obstacles are highlighted, they do not overshadow Ginsburg's extraordinary achievements nor her inspiring life story. 


Jones as Ginsburg at Harvard dinner party, Image Credit: Focus Features

The film itself is a piece of art. Although it lacks a strong emotional punch, it still gracefully tells the story of a brilliant, resilient young woman and her devoted husband. The beauty of the film comes from the consistency of the aesthetics. In almost every shot, you can see some shade of blue, a color often connected to intelligence and authority. Steel blue on her first day of class and as the color of her typewriter. Teal blue when she's attending a dinner hosted by the Dean of Harvard being asked why she is occupying a spot that could have been given to a man. Midnight blue when she has the breakthrough that becomes the catalyst of her career. By using the colors in Ginsburg's dress to communicate a message, the film mirrors something often done by women in positions of power. Throughout the film, Ginsburg keeps her cool in the face of many men who hoped to see her fail, always speaking in a voice full of power and intellect, matching the blue of her ensemble. 

It's clear that Ginsburg's family is an integral part of her story and her success. For every scene there is about the law, there is another showing the relationship between Ginsburg and her husband, Martin. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Stiepleman talks about how a part of his vision for the project was to tell a story about a marriage with "real equality." Martin spends the entire film in Ginsburg's corner. After bringing her the tax case that the story revolves around, Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, he doesn't leave her side. His support is unwavering when she is nominated for a spot on the supreme court, campaigning for her confirmation when she wasn't allowed to.


Jones, Bates, and Spaeny, Image Credit: Focus Features

Equally important to Ginsburg's relationship with her husband, is the one that she shares with her daughter. At one point, Ginsburg takes her daughter, Jane (Caliee Spaeny), to visit Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), another attorney fighting against discrimination from a past generation. As the three of them stand together in the hallway, we see the past, the present, and the future of the fight against discrimination on the basis of sex. These moments of love between husband and wife and mother and daughter do evoke an emotional warmth, but I left the theater wanting more. I wanted the story to knock me off my feet. I wanted her final speech to take my breath away. Unfortunately, it didn't carry the weight that I was hoping for. It seemed as if Stiepleman was trying to ride on the emotions connected to the politics rather than to the story itself.

While the film left me craving something deeper, all I had to do when I left the theater was look at any piece of news for emotional satisfaction. I could watch Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual congresswoman, be sworn into office by Mike Pence or read anything about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's rise to power. As a film telling the story of a woman who got rejected from at least 12 law firms because of her sex, this movie couldn't be better timed. Watching Ginsburg fight to be taken seriously at the same that a record number of women were elected to seats in the 116th U.S. Congress highlights just how far we've come. But, the fact that the record number is only a mere 23.7 percent shows just how far we have to go.

After almost 26 years on the bench, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been through four U.S. presidents, three bouts of cancer, two broken ribs, and is still standing her ground in the face of many who want to see her step down. She has prospered for years fighting against discrimination. The final scene in the movie shows Justice Ginsburg under the motto inscribed on the face of the Supreme Court Building, "Equal Justice Under Law," a shot that perfectly frames the path of her life.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX - Official Trailer [HD] - In Theaters This Christmas