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On the Basis of Sex

On June 14 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court of the United States. She was only the second woman selected for one of the highest positions in the federal judiciary and The Senate confirmed her nomination by 96 votes to three. Nicknamed The Notorious R.B.G., Ginsburg has been a trailblazing advocate for women's rights and gender equality since the 1970s, when she operated as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Her ascent is loving chronicled in director Mimi Leder's glossy drama On The Basis Of Sex, which focuses on the 16-year period between Ginsburg's arrival at Harvard Law School and her appearance in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue for a tax deduction for caregiver expenses on behalf of a 63-year-old male client. This hard-fought victory opened the door to gender-based discrimination cases, which underpin Ginsburg's lustrous reputation. Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who is Ginsburg's nephew, pays glowing tribute to his aunt during two hours of gently paced human drama, galvanised by winning performances from Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. The film opens in 1956 when Ruth (Jones) follows her husband Martin (Hammer) to Harvard Law School. She is one of nine women granted admission to the hallowed halls of an institution that prides itself on moulding brilliant legal minds. Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) can barely contain his disdain. At a dinner party hosted by his wife, he invites each female student to stand up, introduce herself and explain why they are "occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man". Unperturbed, Ruth excels and when Martin faces a devastating cancer diagnosis, she attends both of their classes to ensure he does not fall behind while raising their child. Thankfully, Martin's cancer goes into remission and the family moves to New York where Ruth takes a teaching post and faces the fiercest battle of all: raising their spirited teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny). On The Basis Of Sex is a moving and handsomely crafted valentine to a marriage that provided firm foundations for Ginsburg's war of attrition to challenge gender discrimination in law. Jones and Hammer are an attractive on-screen pairing and Leder's film builds predictably to a courtroom showdown where Ruth argues passionately that the 178 federal laws that differentiate on the basis of gender are obstacles for the aspirations of future generations. The leads are ably supported by Kathy Bates as attorney and political activist Dorothy Kenyon and Justin Theroux as ACLU legal director Mel Wulf, who answer Ginsburg's passionate call to arms. "Morality doesn't win the day," observes Wulf. Leder's undemanding film does in its own sure-footed, quiet and conventional manner.