Film reviews: On the Basis of Sex | Cold Pursuit | Capernaum

A sincere but staid early years biopic of Supreme Court justice Ruth Ginsberg doesn’t really do justice to the inspiring woman at its heart, while Liam Neeson is the problem in Cold Pursuit, writes Alistair Harkness

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex
Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Mimi Leder's On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex (12A) ***

Cold Pursuit (15) **

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Capernaum (15) ***

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is having something of a pop culture moment. Already this year the octogenarian Supreme Court justice has been the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary – RBG – which was itself inspired by her unlikely elevation to the status of internet meme by millennials intent on celebrating her decades-long dedication to removing the legal obstacles to gender inequality. Now comes On the Basis of Sex, an early years biopic that zeroes in on her rise to prominence.

Directed by Mimi Leder and starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, the film opens with her enrolment in Harvard law school, a venerable institution that treats her like a minority student who should be thankful to have been given a place that, in the words of the dean (Sam Waterston), “Could have gone to a man.” That exchange pretty much establishes the film’s spell-everything-out tone as we see her not only working hard to ensure she’s top of the class, but simultaneously helping her husband and fellow law student, Marty (Armie Hammer), pass his classes too when he falls sick. Upon graduation, however, it’s Marty – who views Ruth as his equal – who develops the flourishing career; Ruth can’t even secure a job interview, let alone a career as a practicing lawyer.

Audience indignation duly stoked, the film jumps forward to the 1970s, where Ginsburg, now working as a law professor, sees an opportunity to start challenging the unconstitutionality of dozens of discriminatory laws by taking on the case of a Denver man denied tax relief for looking after his elderly mother simply because he’s not female. That flip is a neat hook for a film about gender inequality and, without getting too lost in the details, On the Basis of Sex drills down into the complications surrounding Ginsburg’s attempt to use the case to set a new legal precedent.

Nevertheless, the film never quite feels like a movie entirely worthy of its subject. Made very much in the populist, middle-brow, awards-bait style that’s become de rigueur for these sorts of stories, it breaks the issues down into easy-to-understand chunks and serves them up with swelling strings, big trailer-ready speeches for the leads, and period details that feel more museum-like than lived in. But it’s never rousing in the way that the similarly styled Hidden Figures was. True, that film was set-against the backdrop of the space race, not an attempt to challenge a tax law. But On the Basis of Sex is feels a little too concerned with making its protagonist likeable, which, ironically enough, reinforces some of the gender stereotypes it’s trying to dismantle. That said, Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer remain eminently watchable, though the final moments featuring the real Ginsburg walking through the supreme court while audio clips of some of her most famous pronouncements play on the soundtrack underscores why she’s perhaps a better subject for a formulaic documentary than a formulaic drama.

Liam Neeson is the biggest problem with Cold Pursuit – and not just because of his ill-judged decision to use the promotional trail to work through some racially charged thoughts on revenge he once had 40 years ago. No, he’s a liability because he has none of the comedic skills required to pull off the farcical nature of this Coen brothers-esque black comedy. A remake of the 2014 Norwegian hit In Order of Disappearance, the film casts Neeson as a mild-mannered Colorado snowplough operator who sets out to avenge his son’s death after refusing to believe he died of a heroin overdose. If that sounds like the perfect set-up for a late-period Liam Neeson movie, that’s also part of the problem. Where the original had Stellan Skarsgård mining laughs from a character discovering his surprising proficiency for methodically dispensing with bad guys, the remake treats Neeson like a typical Neeson character, which undermines the requisite sense of bemusement needed to make this work, especially as he unwittingly exacerbates a turf war between a local drug kingpin (Tom Bateman) and the Native American gang who control the supply lines. Those details have been adapted from the original and there are flashes of the dark humour that made it such a blast (the bad guy telling his bullied son to use Lord of the Flies as an instruction manual is a nice early gag). But even though both versions have been directed by Hans Peter Molland, the new one is all over the place tonally, ensuring the violence isn’t morbidly funny, it’s just morbid.

Oscar-nominated this year for best foreign language film, the Lebanese drama Capernaum revolves around an incredibly naturalistic and vibrant performance from its young star, Zain Al Rafeea. A 12-year-old Syrian refugee who’d never acted before, he plays Zain, a young boy of indeterminate age who decides to sue his neglectful parents for giving birth to him – a rather fanciful conceit that the film, which is set in Beirut, uses as a framing device for a more urgent and compellingly-told story detailing Zain’s life on the streets after he runs away from home. Writer/director Nadine Labaki (Caramel) uses Zain’s story to give a child’s eye view of the terrible cost of constant conflict and though it over-eggs some aspects (and makes questionable use of a toddler in one of the subplots), it feels true to the heightened perspective of its protagonist. ■