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'On the Basis of Sex' is emotionally strong but doesn't completely do RBG's timeline justice

★★★

If you don’t know who Ruth Bader Ginsberg is, she’s a rock star of the legal world. A champion of women’s rights, she was the second woman elected to the US Supreme Court in 1993, the subject of the recent Oscar-nominated documentary RBG and recently recorded a cameo appearance in The Lego Movie 2. Given her amazing popularity, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking with a biopic of her tale.

The film begins with Ruth (Felicity Jones) commencing her classes at Harvard Law School, where she is one of only nine women admitted into a class of 500. She’s smart and determined, despite continual clashes with a sexist school dean (Sam Waterston) who is baffled by women taking the place of men. After graduating she finds herself unable to find a job with a law firm, and takes a job teaching as a professor. It’s here she is approached with a case involving a man denied tax deductions simply because he is a man. This case of sex-based discrimination leads Ginsburg on her lifelong campaign to change the laws that separate men from women.

While being a somewhat uneven film, On The Basis of Sex is anchored by its lead performance by Felicity Jones, who gives one of her strongest performances to date. She transitions from the driven student to the passionate crusader of women’s rights with such ease that audiences can’t help but be hooked by her journey. Her portrayal of Ginsburg isn’t flashy but instead one of quiet reserve. She shines in the smaller, more intimate moments that give a true insight into what a passionate and empowered woman Ginsburg truly is.

Jones is elevated by a superb supporting cast, led by Armie Hammer as Marty, Ruth’s doting husband. Their chemistry is sweet and charming, and quickly becomes the emotional core of the film. Cailee Spaeny also delivers a strong performance as Ginsburg’s activated daughter Jane, while Justin Theroux provides some levity as ACLU head Mel Wulf.

Behind the camera, director Mimi Leder has done a serviceable job bringing the story to life. She allows Jones’ performance to serve as the centrepiece rather than try and captivate with dynamic visuals. The script by Daniel Stiepleman (Ginsburg’s real-life nephew) is somewhat bland and small considering how impactful the real live Ruth has been. By only focusing on one portion of her life, the film unfortunately never grows beyond being a conventional biopic.

The beginning of each year always sees a slew of films that attempt to tug at your heartstring, get you fired up and, more specifically, win Oscars. On The Basis of Sex can certainly be counted in this category. While still managing to entertain, it never reaches the emotional heights a film about Ginsburg deserves. Thankfully it doesn’t devolve into the emotional trite territory some other films stray into (I’m looking at you Green Book), but it does leave you with a somewhat hollow feeling as the credits roll.

On The Basis of Sex opens in Australian cinemas on February 6.