Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.


On the Basis of Sex (2018) [USA, certificate 12A]

This biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is deeply conventional, but in a way I suppose that suits a woman whose strongest work was largely behind the scenes, chipping away at gender discrimination in the law while those louder and more partisan marched on the streets or proclaimed the case for women’s rights in the media. After an opening section focusing on her studies at Harvard in the 1950s and lack of ability to get a job in law, forcing her into academia, the bulk of the film revolves around her 1970s case taking on a man who had been placed in the position of being discriminated against due to his sex, intending to use this as the basis for a series of lawsuits aimed at various discrimatory laws (which she did later in her career before ascending to the Supreme Court). The casting of two blandly attractive WASPy types is somewhat odd, given the characters are Jewish New Yorkers through-and-through, but everyone is equal to the material and the orchestral soundtrack leads us through the requisite emotional beats. It’s not exactly challenging, but it hits all the marks.

On the Basis of Sex film posterCREDITS
Director Mimi Leder; Writer Daniel Stiepleman; Cinematographer Michael Grady; Starring Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 23 February 2019.


Mary Queen of Scots (2018) [UK/USA, certificate 15]

There are things I like about this film, and I might as well say up-front that I’m not much interested in how accurate it is to history. I mean, there’s probably plenty that stretches credulity, but Saoirse Ronan’s Mary in full armour on horseback cosplaying Joan of Arc by leading an army of men into battle is a definite highlight, and I’d happily go and see more movies based on that notion, whatever their basis in reality. However, this film does rather go on a bit long, and there are scenes that feel a bit like a television play (which needn’t always be a bad thing), but does feel a bit like it’s missing some of the power of cinema — though its cinematic qualities are not in big swooping helicopter shots of Scottish landscapes, either (we have Outlaw/King for that kind of thing). But Ronan is great as ever, of course, and the scenes amongst her court, setting up some of the power dynamics, are nicely sketched, with some other good eye acting all round (because most of the rest of the amassed faces are covered in beards). I liked the prominent use of people of colour (like Gemma Chan) in supporting roles, too, but overall this film feels just a little bit stodgy. Also, like all such heritage films, it’s yet another fine argument for getting rid of the monarchy.

Mary Queen of Scots film posterCREDITS
Director Josie Rourke; Writer Beau Willimon (based on the biography Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy); Cinematographer John Mathieson; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 27 January 2019.

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