On the Basis of Sex (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Mimi Leder, US, 2018, 120 mins

Cast:  Felicity Jones, Arnie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaeny

Review by Carol Allen

This is the story of American lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who in the seventies fought for and won a change in the many laws in her country, which discriminated on the basis of sex or as we would more commonly say today, gender.   

The film opens in the fifties, where Ruth (Felicity Jones) is one of only nine female students in what is an otherwise all male student body at Harvard law school.  The sexism she and her fellow female colleagues are subject to is spelt out clearly when the head of college (Sam Waterston) challenges them to justify the privilege of being there and taking a place “which could have gone to man”.  Not only is Ruth struggling with sexism.  She has family responsibilities, in that she is married to fellow law student Martin (Arnie Hammer) and has a baby girl.  And when Marty falls ill, as well as keeping the family going, she is also helping him to keep up with his studies as well as her own.

We then move to the seventies.  Sexism is still rife.  Ruth is having problems getting a job in a practice and is teaching law to a class of female students, who share her dissatisfaction with the system.  Her chance comes when a case of tax law discrimination comes to her notice.  The victim is interestingly a man, Charles M Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who has been refused the right to set against tax the cost of hiring a nurse to look after his ageing mother because he is an unmarried man. The assumption being that it is a woman’s job to be the carer.  Had Charles been a widower or divorced for example, the deduction would have been allowed on the grounds he had lost the services of the woman who would have been doing the job.  It is a nice point but one which has implications for all gender discrimination law from the jobs women were not allowed to do at the time to their eligibility for jury service.

To make a drama out of a fight to change tax legislation is not an easy matter and the arcane legal arguments sometimes seem heavy going and long winded in terms of holding back the pace of the drama.  But this is also a human story, written interestingly by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who had admired “Auntie Ruth and Uncle Marty’s” devoted marriage as a child. Because as well the film marking an important step forward in the fight for gender equality under the law, Martin Ginsburg would appear to have been a shining example of the “new man” long before the term was invented. In the fifties we see him doing more than his fair share of the child care, while throughout Ruth’s professional battles he is always there by her side, supporting her.   He is almost too good to be true. At 6 foot 5 inches tall Hammer also towers both comically and protectively over his diminutive co-star.

As Ruth, Jones seizes the chances offered by such a strong and proactive character and strikes just the right note of determination laced with a touch of insecurity in the climactic courtroom scene, as she faces up to a traditional brace of white, middle aged male judges, who regard a woman’s place as being in the home as the natural order of things.  There is also an effective contribution from Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburg’s daughter Jane, a real chip off the maternal block, who bunks off school to go to a Gloria Steinem rally.