Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keira Knightley
Philippa Lowthorpe’s rosy-cheeked dramatisation of the Women’s Lib protest at the 1970 Miss World competition in London is defined by division. It abuts viewpoints and gathers its strands from different nations and perspectives. From the outset it seems unlikely that it will coalesce. Before the title card even appears we’ve been introduced to Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley); a mature student from a comfortably middle class British background… and rich American comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), entertaining the troops at a USO show in war-torn Vietnam.
Misbehaviour will go on to set further plates spinning. As Sally becomes ingratiated into a distinctly lower class women’s commune led by Jessie Buckley’s activist Jo Robinson (feathering in another type of divide; economic), we’re also invited backstage at the Miss World contest itself, where leering ‘mastermind’ Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) seeks to quell political upheaval by diversifying the South African contingent in the face of Apartheid. Through this prism we get to see the beauty pageant from the perspective of two black women from less privileged backgrounds; South Africa’s token black girl Pearl Jensen (Loreece Harrison) and Grenada’s Jennifer Holsten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw); women for whom the contest holds the false promise of genuine change.
Bursting at the seams with talent (I haven’t even gotten to Lesley Manville yet), Misbehaviour sets out an ambitious stall, intent on showing a variety of perspectives on a singular moment in civil rights history. It’s an admirable choice. Often ‘based on a true story’ movies like this are left open to chastisement for their myopia. But the end result may also stand as a lesson in why the broader approach isn’t often the path that’s chosen. Lowthorpe does her best to keep all plates spinning but, as her film notes quite pointedly, equality isn’t an easy thing to come by.
The film finds its fire when it pushes confrontation and disagreement to the fore. Sally brings the need for media coverage to the burgeoning group of SJWs, inadvertently thrusting herself into the limelight. She is volunteered to appear on the BBC as the spokeswoman for their cause. The resulting televised debate sees Knightley really come alive as she’s given some dramatic meat to bite into. When Sally is challenged by the fiercer ideologies held by Jo, there’s a similar raising of the blood pressure.
That these moments announce themselves and feel so welcome is down to the ambling pleasantries of so much of the rest. Lowthorpe’s approach is largely without bite; a shrewd-seeming exercise in broad dramedy. We’re invited to laugh at Morley pretending to be the winner of his own contest. Ifans mugs gamely for the cameras. Meanwhile, any sense of urgency or vitriol is neutered whenever Kinnear’s fruitless Bob Hope story line trundles to the fore. It’s one strand too many, and would have no merit whatsoever were it not for a single scene in which Manville – as Bob’s long-suffering wife Dolores – simply laughs on a couch by herself (worth admission alone; it’s wondrous).
The Bob Hope stuff eats up screen time that would have been better spent rounding out the characters of Jensen and Holsten, who can’t help but seem deprioritised and thinly sketched as a result. Still, the most fruitful moment of collision comes in the third act, when a series of events conspires to place Sally and Miss Grenada in the same room together. You’ll end up wishing the film had found a way to give Knightley and Mbatha-Raw more time to interact. But brevity also gives the scene its power. Like the peak of a song that you enjoy so much because the band close it down so quickly.
Divisions may be everywhere in Misbehaviour, but so is infiltration. Changing social mores pressure Morley and the show’s organisers to also diversify Miss World’s judging panel. Sally encourages Jo’s activists inside the venue to stage their protests, rather than remaining locked outside – a powerful visual for when the cameras turn on them. Their very commotion in the stalls broadcasts the existence of their movement to the world.
One wonders if the idea of infiltration weighed on the creative decisions in making the film. This is a cosy, family-friendly soft entertainment piece (with a lone, perfectly placed ‘F’ bomb – within the remit of a 12A). It’s an issues film that’s also going for mass-market appeal. It’s not too edgy, not too forceful. Dismantling the patriarchy is still a jovial, cheeky work-in-progress the film admits with a wink during the obligatory on-screen text that rounds it all off. Misbehaviour often feels as though its still trying to sneak something radical up on its audience. That its lightness is tactical.
So if its only intermittently as fierce as it could be, that’s also a deliberate move. Misbehaviour believes in bringing about change through engagement. If the patriarchy can normalise a cattle-market contest like Miss World, then modern cinema can use these same techniques to forward a feminist message. It is cushioned snugly in the framework of a warm-hued BBC Films love-in. To the degree that, frankly, a little more misbehaviour and risk-taking might’ve been quite welcome.