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‘On the Basis of Sex’ Review: Call It ‘RBG: The Early Years’

Felicity Jones plays the young-and-restless Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this superhero-origin-story biopic

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 'On the Basis of Sex.'

Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

Ruth Bader Ginsburgthe Notorious RBG to those who cheer her 25 years of defiantly independent thinking on the Supreme Court — sure as hell deserves a biopic. At 85, the jurist is such a cultural icon that she’s portrayed by Kate McKinnon on SNL as a ball of energy who breaks into a happy dance every time she flips a “Ginsburn.” The woman is a rock star. And anyone who wants a Ginsburg portrait that covers all the bases can check out RBG, the hit doc released earlier this year.

On the Basis of Sex is more like an origin story that catches Ginsburg in the enthralling act of inventing herself, highlighting the ups and downs of the trailblazer’s formative period. Call it RBG: The Early Years. Though Felicity Jones (Rogue One, The Theory of Everything) may seem an eccentric choice to play the Jewish, Brooklyn-born legal icon, the gifted British actress has no trouble finding the intellectual rigor and propulsive drive that define this 5’1″ dynamo.

Even title that reflects Ginsburg’s career-long battle against gender discrimination — so it’s fitting that the film is directed by a woman. Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact) forgoes cinematic innovation to tell her subject’s story in the clearest, bluntest, most RBG-appropriate way possible. From her days locking horns with the male aristocracy at Harvard Law School — she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men — to her retreat to academia (when this tied for first-in-her-class graduate was turned down by major New York law firms), Ginsberg never met a hurdle she couldn’t climb.

And she had plenty of obstacles to overcome, like when her marriage to fellow student Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) hit a bump when, shortly after the birth of their daughter in 1955, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Ruth attended his classes and took notes until his recovery. The film takes pain to shows the Ginsburgs (they had a son in 1965) as helpmates, despite demanding careers. While Ruth taught and also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union with legal chief Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), Marty rose to prominence as a tax expert.

Those who think the film presents too rosy a picture of the Ginsburg home life may find further ammunition in the fact that script is written by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ruth’s nephew. And yet the legal facts check out as the film sweeps into the 1970s with the rise of the womens’ movement (Kathy Bates is well cast as pioneering activist lawyer Dorothy Kenyon) and Ruth finds the breakthrough she’ needs. Specifically, Marty discovers the case, Moritz v. Commissioner of the IRS — an obscure 1972 tax dispute in which Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey), a single white male living in Colorado, is denied a $296 tax deduction for looking after his sick, elderly mother. The law basically says that only women can take deductions for being caregivers. Ginsburg wants to prove otherwise.

It’s a doozy of an irony: Ruth finds her way into battling a half-century of legalized bias against woman by defending a man. And to watch the her defend him, with Marty at her side, is not only engrossing legal drama, but a historic look at how one woman helped explode the myth that female subservience is part of the natural order. In the film’s coda, the real-deal RBG herself turns up. You want to roar your approval — which means this movie can claim, in effect, “mission: accomplished.”

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