by David Katz
- Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in Philippa Lowthorpe’s light, spirited film retelling the 1970 Miss World pageant, which was disrupted by feminist protesters
If we’re fortunate, small, creative acts of protest can shift public opinion for the better. Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour places the fracas at the 1970 Miss World competition at the very centre of that era’s political tensions, an incident where second-wave feminism, critiques of beauty standards, and concerns over racial segregation came crashing forth to a TV audience expecting an evening of light, prime-time entertainment. Hoping to draw parallels between then and now, the film, which was released in the UK and Ireland last Friday, courtesy of Walt Disney, struggles to find a happy marriage of polemic and laughs.
In spite of its title, Misbehaviour is formulaic and tidily presented to a fault, aiming to sugar the pill of its ideas with broad comedy and caricatured performances. Keira Knightley, ever the image of prim Britishness, is Sally Alexander, a mature history student with the zeal to bring feminist ideas into the male-dominated academic establishment. There, she is greeted with scholars more interested in grading her looks out of ten than her ideas, and so finds common cause in other, more rebellious parts of the women’s movement. She falls in with Jo (Jessie Buckley), an art-school graduate living in an Islington commune, and they plot a course of direct action and public protest, seen as a more effective way of advocating their demands for equal rights.
In a suspiciously perfect counterpoint, the latest edition of the Miss World international beauty pageant is gearing up elsewhere in London. The caddish organiser, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), is growing more aware of the latent message of his show, with anger mounting over his inclusion of a white South African contestant in the era of Apartheid. Host Bob Hope (smoothly played by Greg Kinnear) prepares to fly over from Hollywood, where he’s admonished by his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville) for lecherous behaviour at a previous event – a plot strand that is a nod to the #MeToo movement, underscoring the potential for coercion and abuse of power in this particular industry. Meanwhile, the Miss Grenada contestant, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is quietly confident of success in the pageant, aware that it’ll grant her an opportunity to realise her wider career ambitions. Unfortunately, we’re afforded far less insight into this character’s psychology than the protesters’, which is a shame, seeing as she becomes just as important an adversary to the demonstration as the misogynistic organisers.
Director Philippa Lowthorpe (most highly acclaimed for the BBC drama series Three Girls) gives us a panoramic view of this event, emphasising the story’s feminist impetus, but making sure to undermine it at every turn as the story’s multiple perspectives clamour for space. We lose the film’s most exciting hook: the prospect of a sexist establishment roundly, publicly humiliated. Rather than a true “smash”, as the famous saying goes, the patriarchy is only given a little trip.
When history is distilled into smaller, anecdotal episodes, as in similar British films like Pride [+see also:
film profile] and Made in Dagenham [+see also:
interview: Nigel Cole
film profile], their respective political struggles are humanised, but not for the worse. However, Misbehaviour’s whimsical story and presentation, well-meaning as it is, can’t elevate its main incident into something more relevant to our times.
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