‘On the Basis of Sex’: Ginsburg’s superhero origin tale lacks a little spirit

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's rise to the top of US politics is undeniably screenworthy, but unlike the woman herself, Cath Clarke finds 'On the Basis of Sex' a tad dull

If you believe this glossy conventional biopic, one of the smartest career decisions Ruth Bader Ginsburg ever made was picking Marty Ginsburg to be her husband in 1954. She’s less known here, but in the US, Bader Ginsburg is a feminist hero, a rock star liberal – the most famous women’s rights lawyer of her generation. So famous they call her the Notorious RBG.

Bill Clinton appointed her a supreme court justice; at 85 she’s still serving, recently voting from her hospital bed against Donald Trump’s proposed asylum restrictions. What we learn here about Mr Bader – also a lawyer – is that he was an early example of Woke Man, fully supportive of his wife’s career. A point hammered home here by repeatedly showing him in a pinny chopping up vegetables.

It’s left to the British actor Felicity Jones to provide the complexity of the woman,      

By all accounts, the Ginsburgs were blissfully happy for more than 50 years. But even still, On the Basis of Sex feels like the rosy authorised version, of a marriage – surely, they had one fight when the kids were little over who was most tired/overworked/neglected – and of RBG’s trailblazing glass-ceiling smashing career. It’s left to the British actor Felicity Jones to provide the complexity of the woman, bringing that unmissable intelligence she has to the role – always the suggestion of a character’s rich inner life, brain ticking away 10 to the dozen.

On the Basis of Sex is a superhero origin tale, the story of how RBG found her voice and learned to use it. The movie opens with her first day at Harvard Law School in 1956 – already married to Marty (Armie Hammer) and the mother of a toddler – arriving at class, a dot of pale blue linen in a sea of grey suits. After graduating top of her class, RBG can’t get a job, and here the film, directed by Mimi Leder, brilliantly evokes the injustices and workplace misogyny of the era. Take the rejections from leading law firms: women are too emotional to be lawyers; a woman graduating top of her class must be a real ballbreaker – who’d want to work with a bossy female?

The pleasure of a biopic about someone you know very little about is the genuine surprise at how things turn out. America is the most litigious country world. RBG is one of the brightest and best. She’s going to get a job in the end, right? No. As a woman she’s genuinely unhireable. So she becomes a teacher and by the early 1970s is a respected if mildly frustrated law professor. Then, along comes a case involving a man refused a tax deduction for looking after his elderly mother (the law assumes that carers are female so doesn’t extend to men). It’s Marty who first spots the potential in this obscure tax dispute. Women have been losing gender-discrimination cases for a century. Why not try with a male plaintiff?

On the Basis of Sex arrives in cinemas with that slight soiled-goods feeling of an Oscarbait movie that has been overlooked, nominated for precisely zero awards. That’s a little unfair – it’s a decent, well-acted drama, if a little blandly dull in its approach. As the mother of a daughter, I’m often given empowering books for girls about real-life amazing women – Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks. I have the same problem with this film as those books, which tend to be all good intentions and inspirational uplift. Where’s the grit? The sacrifices? The movie’s scriptwriter Daniel Stiepleman, it turns out, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew. Which should surprise no one.

On the Basis of Sex is in cinemas from February 22