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Posts Tagged ‘Mimi Leder’

There was a time when I used to complain on a fairly regular basis about films either using misleading titles or making insufficiently good use of promising ones. I was really thinking of movies like Tyrannosaur, Planet of Dinosaurs (a pattern develops), and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I haven’t done it for a bit, but I am almost minded to revive the tradition now that cinemas up and down the land are showing Mimi Leder’s new film On the Basis of Sex.

What is the passing punter supposed to make of a title like this? It suggests much, perhaps even promises much, but at the same time it is almost entirely obscure should you not actually be in the know. If you were to ask me I might suggest it was a film about bad reasons for getting married. Needless to say, it is not: it is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg which I believe I alluded to when discussing the documentary about the Notorious RBG.

You may think I’m dwelling at bit too much on the title thing – but it’s not as if the film can claim innocence on this front. There is a whole actual scene where someone observes that the word ‘sex’ comes with a load of baggage and it might really be better to use a less provocative synonym like ‘gender’. But are we in a theatre watching a film entitled On the Basis of Gender? We are not. It is Sex all the way (except in the film itself, that is).

The film gets underway at Harvard Law School in 1956, and the director loses no time in subtly trowelling in the subtext of the movie: martial music places, a male voice choir sings, and endless ranks of white dudes in suits stroll about, revelling in their entitlement. Marching through this scene, however, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her year. It is dismayingly like the way that The Iron Lady tried to suggest Margaret Thatcher should be hailed as some kind of feminist icon, but the film does discover subtlety of a sort as it continues.

There’s not a great deal of Harvard stuff here, as it is mainly scene-setting and character-establishing material – Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are both students at Harvard, the place is horrendously sexist (there’s a scene where the Dean invites all the female students to dinner and then requires them to explain just what the hell they think they’re doing there), and Ruth is possessed of the sort of determination and resolve that would be unbelievable if you gave it to a fictional character: at one point she’s aceing her classes, raising their child effectively single-handed, and attending Marty’s classes too (he’s undergoing medical treatment).

Despite coming top of her year at both Harvard and Columbia, Ruth can’t land a job at an actual law firm, and ends up becoming a professor of law specialising in gender discrimination.  Ten years later, the world is showing signs of changing, with a rebellious new generation challenging the old assumptions and standards – even Ruth’s own daughter (Cailee Spaeny) gives her a hard time for being all talk and no action. But this changes when Marty’s tax work uncovers the case of a man being discriminated against for staying at home to care for his elderly mother (the law assuming that only women will do this). Could this be the opening they need to have legal gender discrimination declared unconstitutional?

One of the problems with On the Basis of Thingy, such as it is, is right there at the end of that paragraph – nothing wrong with a good courtroom drama, it’s a great framework for a narrative, providing the case is involving anyway. Now, while the principles involved in the main case here may be immensely important, and the historical context startling – this is 1970, and the US legal system is accepting that sexist legislation is constitutionally valid – but the actual case itself is honestly not that interesting or exciting. It’s about tax codes. Most of the drama is really peripheral to it – can Ruth persuade the ACLU to back them? Is participating in this going to damage Marty’s career as a top-flight tax attorney? Should they abandon a case in the state appeal court in case it sets a bad precedent for an upcoming federal supreme court appearance?

See, even here all the legal jargon starts creeping in. Now, respect is due to the movie for crediting the audience with intelligence, and I’m not adverse to a few intellectually chewy bits, but they need to be paired with genuine moments of narrative energy and excitement, and this film never honestly delivers enough of this.

Part of this is because it is always exactly the film you would expect it to be: men in ties conspire to preserve a society rigged in their favour, determined young women refuse to be dissuaded, Felicity Jones is told ‘You’ve been ready for this your whole life!’ and gets lines like ‘You don’t get to tell me when to quit!’; there is also the exchange where she declares that the word ‘freedom’ does not appear in the US Constitution (which is indeed true, if you ignore the amendments). Obviously the film is telling an important story, and its heart is in the right place, but do all the movies with this kind of theme have to be quite so po-faced? It’s like watching The Lives of the Saints more than an actual drama.

This certainly seems to be reflected in Felicity Jones’ performance, which carefully mixes steely earnestness with earnest steeliness: there’s not much sign of the mischievous sense of humour the real RBG displays in the documentary. At least the film reflects her love of opera and reportedly dreadful cooking abilities. To be honest, Jones isn’t that bad, considering the constrictions she’s operating under; Armie Hammer does very good work in a supporting role (in more senses than one). Some energy is provided by Justin Theroux (who, as regular readers will know, is not the Prime Minister of Canada but the Iron Man 2 guy) as an ACLU lawyer RBG teams up with, not entirely amicably; Cailee Spaeny’s turn as a younger Ginsberg will doubtless do her burgeoning career no harm.

I feel a bit like I’m kicking a dog by not praising On the BasisĀ  of Thingy more fulsomely; a big toothy dog that could probably take my leg off at the knee, at that. This is a handsomely made film with decent performances, that manages to make some important ideas and events accessible. There are lots of people who would probably benefit a lot from watching it. I just wish it was a bit more interesting and exciting as an actual piece of entertainment.

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