The real Wonder Woman

A real-life feminist hero gets the Hollywood treatment

On the Basis of Sex

– Shall we go the movies tonight?
– Yeah, the one where Liam Neeson kills drug dealers.
– Err…
– What about the one with Felicity Jones about the pioneering US Supreme Court judge who did so much to advance the cause of  female economic justice in the 70s?
– Ahh…
– Yes, that one!

I really don’t know how many conservations like that one occur on Saturday evenings, but assuming (in Sydney’s inner west at least) they do, would those movie-goers really choose a glossy and generic by-the-numbers biopic about a plucky little heroine who triumphs against insurmountable odds? Maybe… Felicity Jones is gorgeous, and On the Basis of Sex also stars Armie Hammer, the impossible hunk from Call Me By Your Name. Or if they really wanted to learn more about the singular career of  Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who until her unlikely rock-star ascendency in the age of Trump was an obscure figure known only to legal wonks and American history boffins, wouldn’t they just stream the much-lauded doco RBG which did surprisingly good business when it played in local cinemas last year? 

In this Hollywood version directed by Mimi Leder, the first half breezily takes us through Brooklyn-raised Ginsberg’s (Jones) student years, where she proves (many times) to be the smartest person in the room, especially when up against patronising, imbecilic males like the Harvard Law School’s Dean (Sam Waterston – standing in for Donald Trump). This was back in the days when there were only 9 women to 500 men in her year, and pretty well everyone involved in law were gender reptiles (apparently). Fellow student Martin (Hammer) proves different though – as impossibly nice and charming as he is good looking. They marry but then he gets testicular cancer. Oh no! Another obstacle to overcome, so she studies law on his behalf, earns his brilliant degree as well as her own… He recovers, but then he gets the spectacularly lucrative law career while she gets a lowly academic post.

But still she thrives! They have kids, he cooks, she works and works, he nurses the babies, she becomes a law professor specialising in gender, neglects her family (but they love her anyway). Then finally in the last 45 minutes, we get to the point: Martin (a pretty smart cookie himself) discovers an unlikely case of gender injustice (ironically discriminating against men) which they believe has the potential of establishing precedent and overturning all sorts of workplace barriers “on the basis of sex.” So suddenly there’s a High Court challenge and a bloated, packed third act. Kathy Bates turns up as a spiky activist and Justin Theroux gets a showboating role as the ACLU’s gruff and smarmy legal boss. And he is entertaining – they all are, as is this section of the movie, which will (belatedly) at least half satisfy those who like juicy, wordy judicial dramas where obscure legal points are fired off like bullets. Though with the smartest person in the room on the case, victory is inevitable. End, credits, list RBG’s spectacular real-life achievements and we see the real diminutive Ginsberg – much smaller than the spectacularly pretty Brit actor who plays her. Her own her nephew wrote the script, and apparently she approves of this version of her life. Well, who wouldn’t! M from Feb 7. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★

– I liked that better than I thought I would.
– Err…
– We’ll go to the Liam Neeson one next week.

View the trailer

ReviewRussell Edwards