On the Basis of Sex review: Director Mimi Leder’s achievement is to have made such a rousing drama from a dry storyline

Dir: Mimi Leder; Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Cailee Spaeny, Chris Mulkey. Cert 12A, 120 mins

“A woman, a mother and a Jew to boot,” is how young lawyer and future supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is dismissed early in her legal career. That is a triple whammy. As Mimi Leder’s biopic makes clear, the scales are tilted very heavily against Ruth. It doesn’t help that she is so tiny and not much of an orator. Hollywood tends to ignore figures like her. They are as under-represented in mainstream cinema as women were at Harvard Law School at the time she attended in the 1950s.

In its own way, On the Basis of Sex is as predictable as any superhero movie. Ruth’s ultimate triumph against overwhelming odds is never in any doubt at all. She doesn’t eat spinach. She isn’t exposed to some radioactive drug that gives her magical abilities. Her secret powers come from studying and from always being the best-prepared student in the classroom or counsel in the court. Leder’s achievement is to have made such a rousing drama from such a dry storyline.

The filmmakers don’t just regale us with statistics to emphasise the chauvinistic nature of Ivy League law schools. They give us group portraits of the intake at Harvard in 1956. Somewhere in these pictures, next to the hundreds of close-cropped young men in near identical suits, you will spot Ruth. Trying to find her is the cinematic equivalent to playing the Where’s Wally? children’s puzzle game in which a single figure is hidden in a huge crowd.

Ruth was one of only nine women in her class. As far as stern, patrician and very irascible Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) is concerned, that was already nine too many. He makes it clear they have usurped the places of nine more deserving men.

The 1950s Harvard scenes offer few new insights that weren’t already present in the excellent recent documentary about Ginsburg, RBG. Ruth juggles looking after her baby daughter with her studies. Then, when her laidback, always supportive, husband Martin (Armie Hammer) gets testicular cancer, she attends lectures on his behalf as well.

At first glance, Felicity Jones is strange casting as Ruth. She seems a little too glamorous and a little too English to play the diminutive Brooklyn-born heroine. Jones, though, relishes the role. She catches her character’s resilience and idealism as well as her pragmatism. Her Ruth never gives in to self-pity. If she is rebuffed, or loses a legal argument or faces calamity in her private life, she simply redoubles her efforts to succeed. She may seem mild-mannered and Miss Marple-like, but she is utterly relentless.

One minor disappointment is that the film provides so few insights about Ruth’s background or what gave her such a burning desire to become a lawyer in the first place. The screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, Ginsburg’s nephew, deals with particular episodes in its subject’s career in great detail but skirts over or ignores others altogether. There are sudden lurches forward in time. We have a brief interlude in 1959 in New York (where Ruth struggles to find work in spite of having graduated top of her class), and then the rest of the film unfolds in the 1970s.

Rather than try to deal with Ginsburg’s life in full, the film eventually homes in on one representative case in which Ruth set out to prove to the federal courts that the law was unconstitutional. The case concerns a middle-aged man from Denver who had hired a nurse to tend to his elderly and incapacitated mother. This man, who was single and had never been married, was denied a tax break on the basis of his gender.

Given all the other events in Ginsburg’s career, including her skirmishes with Donald Trump, this case seems like small beer. However, as the filmmakers stoke up the drama around it, this turns into a full-blown and satisfying courtroom drama. Ruth is partnered in court by her husband, whose laidback bonhomie is expected to appeal to the judges. She has the brash American Civil Liberties Union legal director Mei Wulf (Justin Theroux) in her corner but is up against the ruthless young James H Bozarth (Jack Reynor), who is representing the government and plays dirty by using computer analysis to bolster his case. Ruth is very earnest. “Will it kill you to smile?” her team ask her. Inevitably, she frowns at the question.

We are given constant reminders of what is at stake. The “future of the American family” is on the line. Gender roles and age-old distinctions between caregivers (women) and bread winners (men) may collapse if Ruth wins. For chauvinistic old timers like Griswold, the “natural order” itself is under threat. Ruth takes inspiration from her liberated, fearless teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), who simply won’t put up with casual, everyday sexism.

Director Leder deserves credit for making a technical and abstruse court case so involving. The opposing counsels’ arguments are timed on chess clocks. They have 30 minutes each. The judges are crafty and hostile. Although any audience member who has heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will know exactly how the case plays out, the tension still ratchets up. On the Basis of Sex might not offer any new information about RBG that is not already found in the numerous media profiles or the recent documentary. However, at its best, it has a dramatic quality that they lack.