In an era of Netflix and Amazon Studios, the characteristics of the average cinema release – outside of the effects-laden summer season – are getting harder to pin down. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma would benefit from the largest screen available, despite no notable action sequences, and a series of quiet scenes set in Mexican suburbia. With more and more first-run releases being available from the comfort of the home, do terms such as direct-to-DVD, or direct-to-streaming have any meaning any longer?
Whilst coming with the pedigree of a name-director in Mimi Leder, and well- regarded names throughout the cast (with the likes of Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates and Stephen Root in relatively minor roles), On the Basis of Sex, a look at sections of the life of U.S. Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg (portrayed here by Felicity Jones), never escapes the trappings, tones and preoccupations of the TV movie.
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Starting in 1956, the film begins with Ruth a married, young mother, in her first year at Harvard Law School. She is one of merely a handful of women enrolled, with this only a short number of years beyond the era where the school was men-only. Arrangements are so new, in fact that, as we learn later in the film, there are not even any female toilet facilities yet provided in the school.
Ruth’s husband Martin (Armie Hammer) is a second year student. When he develops cancer, Ruth takes on his studies as well. This is followed by a section dealing with Ruth attempting to gain dispensation to sit her final year at Columbia, in New York, as the now-in-remission Martin secures work there, once qualified. Finally, in this section of the film, we see the difficulties for a young female law graduate trying to gain employment in a male-dominated profession.
The main bulk of the story deals with events in 1970, as Ruth, now a law professor, takes on the case of a man denied the right, as a lifelong bachelor, to use the tax system to fund a carer for his mother, whilst being able to take on a job for himself. The law stating that only women or widowed men can take advantage of this provision of the tax code. This brings in both Martin, and Mel Wulf (a welcome, energetic performance from Justin Theroux) – head of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – as they attempt to build a case to press for a change to a system that bans both genders from roles not seen as in-keeping with outdated stereotypes, whilst enshrining these inequalities into American life, via the tax system.
On the Basis of Sex is a mundane film about a remarkable woman. The plot is dull and disjointed. The case central to this film takes place through 1970. Whilst it is understandable that a prologue on Ginsberg might be useful as background, quite what the point was of so long spent in the 1950s is anyone’s guess. Yes, we are introduced to the Dean of Harvard Law School – who will go on to be Solicitor-General, prosecutor of the case Ruth is there to appeal, and there’s character work in seeing our lead undertaking two sets of studies – one for herself, and one for her incapacitated husband – at the gold standard of legal colleges. It adds little to our story, however, and simply pads out the running time, when the salient points are that Harvard is tough to get into for a woman, Ruth Ginsberg was first in her class, and jobs were equally tough for a woman to find in the legal profession. The film takes altogether too long to tell us this.
As for the 1970s section of the film, story-wise, it’s fine. The nuts and bolts of the plot hang together, the salient details of the case – which, remember, is about tax, which is far from the most exciting subject for general audiences – are put across to us in a clear and understandable way. The film is equally clear on why the law is unfair, why Ruth’s battle is an uphill one, how aspects of her personality are less than helpful to presenting the key arguments, and how well Ruth and Martin complement each other, both as lawyers, and as people.
This is all well and good, but efficient though the story may be, the telling is po-faced and self-serious. This film’s idea of levity is Ruth standing up to a man. Which would be fine, but for the fact that the novelty value of this – in a decidedly male world – is exhausted far before the film comes to an end: what seemed bright and energetic during Harvard scenes started to play as one-note by the time she is confronting her opponents at the start of act three.
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The writing has not helped the final product to find the right tone. There are only three short scenes, that can be recalled readily, where characters weren’t heavily – and often breathily – arguing ethics/the case/the law. There is a bar scene early on, where it becomes clear Martin is unwell; a scene right after with the doctor and, later, a scene between Martin and his now-teenage daughter. Beyond that this is a script that depicts characters with zero preoccupation with anything other than ‘the law’. Even at a party, Martin is entertaining colleagues with a tax law story. Do these people never watch baseball or basketball, or talk about travel, cooking or cars?
This makes proceedings feel very rote. It exacerbates that TV feel too – watch any made-for-TV cop show, courtroom drama or the like from the 1980s and you’ll see characters living the events of the programme, with little in the way of an internal voice: no hint that there is a character beyond the living out of script beats. On the Basis of Sex has this problem.
Plot and character intersect in obnoxious ways too. The Ginsbergs’ daughter, Jane, is a 15-year old for much of the film. Obviously, as this is all but a TV film, she’s strong-willed in ways that remind Ruth uncomfortably of herself, but also makes her think of her own life and career. It’s all the most obvious melodrama, as Ruth will be about to make the ‘wrong’ decision, then she will observe her daughter, or Jane will say something, and Ruth will be seen thinking. All it was missing was a lightbulb CG’d in over Jones’ head.
Such a lack of subtlety extends to shot selection. Shots of Ginsberg walking away whilst the camera lingers over her shoulder at the people she’s just given the burn; shots of our lead looking pumped up and determined as she walks amongst a sea of male professionals; and long shots of our characters looking at the edifices, plaques and the like of the American legal system – all in a way that is extraordinarily trite – these tics are the backbone of On the Basis of Sex. That Mimi Leder got her start with the likes of LA Law is of little surprise.
That a film doesn’t always completely fill the screen to which it is assigned is not necessarily a deal-breaker. There must be an alternate reality where Erin Brockovich was made for television, and starred Cheryl Ladd and Robert Urich. It did still make for a decent film, however. On the Basis of Sex, on the other hand, is lacking in any levity, any variation of tone and, Theroux aside, is chock-full of quality actors doing very average work with very average material. The extraordinary woman at the heart of this story deserves a better film… or a TV series.