‘Misbehaviour’: Film Review

12 August 2020

Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessie Buckley star as women caught up in the 1970 demonstration against the Miss World pageant in this film based on true events.

Is it too soon to say that Misbehaviour is the Elizabeth Warren of recent feminist-themed, history-inspired British comedies? That is to say, it’s quite lovable, funny and smart, maybe the best option in a disappointing field (see Made in Dagenham or Suffragette for comparison). It’s sensitive to the intersectional complexities of identity politics and protest, accessibly pragmatic and generally solid enough to deserve the top prize in the strictly metaphorical sense needed for this analogy. All good stuff, as sensible as a cardigan.

Deep down, though, some viewers might wish it were just 10 percent better. That’s for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that it could be more effective as, to use an old-school second-wave feminist term, an instrument for consciousness raising. Is it electable, or whatever the film-world equivalent of “electability” is? (Commercially viable? Aesthetically satisfying? Some ineffable combination of the two?) Is it possible that, for all its virtues, the film might have been better if it weren’t so given to broad humor, so paradoxically and perhaps self-defeatingly reliant on the casting of beautiful actors to generate commercial interest — and so bleedingly obvious in its deployment of contrived conflict to generate drama?

That said, it’s a pretty great idea to make the movie both about some of the heroic women who disrupted the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London (represented here by Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, among others) to protest the event’s sexism and about some of the contestants that year — particularly two women of color, Jennifer Hosten aka Miss Grenada (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl Jansen/Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison). For the rabble-rousing, flour-throwing British women protestors, all of them white, disrupting Miss World was a way to fight back against a patriarchy that judges women almost entirely on what they look like. For Hosten and Jansen, it was perhaps just as important that people around the world simply looked at them at all, thereby acknowledging their existence and their right to be considered equal to their white competitors.

As split-screen narrative concepts go, that’s a doozy, especially when ambitiously augmented with additional storylines following the pageant’s fusspot organizers Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes, respectively) and an unreconstructedly chauvinistic Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), who’s flown over to host at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Producer Suzanne Mackie (Calendar Girls, Kinky Boots, Dark River) and writer Rebecca Frayn (TV series Killing Me Softly), who shares the screenwriting credit here with Gaby Chiappe (Their Finest), have disclosed that they were originally inspired by a 2010 episode of the BBC Radio 4 program The Reunion, which brought together some of the real-life people represented here. The episode is still online and features the sound of Jo Robinson, the woman whom Buckley plays in the film, bridling magnificently at being called a “lady,” one of many instances in a fascinating 40 minutes of airtime illustrating just how much the issues at stake in 1970 are still hot and combustible now.

Having built up a résumé directing episodes of The Crown, Three Girls and Call the Midwife, among others (in other words, just the right kind of female-friendly, upmarket but popular quality fare), director Philippa Lowthorpe proves adept here at marshaling the material and drawing empathic performances from the more-than-competent cast. The jocular, amiable tone helps deliver the more serious social history lesson throughout, even if sometimes it feels like it’s shouting just a little too loudly to wake up the dimmer students at the back of the lecture hall.

Was it really necessary, for example, to have the first meeting between Buckley’s hippie hooligan Jo Robinson and Knightley’s studious history student and single mother Sally Alexander be quite so adversarial in order to get us cheering when they join forces later on? Does Sally’s mother, Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), need to be quite such a prune-faced bougie prude, determined to dress Sally’s young daughter in girlie bows and frills, in order to prompt thesis-illustrating arguments? (And then have her change her mind seemingly on whim in the final reels, just to add extra fist-pump to the triumph.) And as much as any sentient creature applauds the chance to see Lesley Manville doing anything on screen, isn’t she kind of wasted in the role of Bob Hope’s long-suffering wife, Dolores, who comes with him all the way to London just so she can watch the show in her hotel room and react to the proceedings as she knocks back the cocktails?

Putting all quibbling aside, it has to be acknowledged that the film delivers with quips, japes and deliciously ugly vintage prints throughout in the costuming, with lashings of girl-empowerment sisterly bonding to drive it all home. Buckley, having an outstanding run this year after Chernobyl, Wild Rose and even her supporting role in Judy, is once again luminous and a mistress of comic timing as the feisty Northerner Jo, a communal dweller who becomes one of the movement’s leaders. She has good chemistry with Knightley, offering a solid turn herself dressed down in bluestocking garb, brow permanently furrowed with irritation at the sexism around her.

But it’s Mbatha-Raw who really sets the screen alight as Hosten, an island girl with courtly, air-hostess manners and a swanlike strength of character that sees her through the chaos. If sometimes it feels like the whole movie is geared toward maneuvering the pieces around the chessboard so that Hosten will meet up with Sally in a ladies room at the climax, Mbatha-Raw plays the game impeccably. Just the way she has her character glide through a room in a swimsuit and heels, smiling brightly but still deeply vulnerable in the eyes, self-conscious about how different she and Pearl are from all the blondes around them, is heartbreaking, dignified and funny all at once. Ultimately, even the most radical of feminists might find herself rooting just as much for her to win the stupid crown as they are for Jo and Sally and all their friends to flour-bomb the patriarchy into oblivion.

Distribution: 20th Century Fox/Pathe (in the U.K.)
Opens: March 13 (U.K.)
Production: A Pathe, BBC Films, Ingenious Media, BFI presentation of a Left Bank Pictures production
Cast: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, Greg Kinnear, John Heffernan, Suki Waterhouse, Clara Rosager, Loreece Harrison, Emma Corrin
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Screenwriters: Rebecca Frayn, Gaby Chiappe
Producers: Suzanne Mackie, Sarah Jane Wheale
Executive producers: Andy Harries, Rebecca Frayn, Cameron
McCracken, Jenny Borgars, Rose Garnett, Andrea Scarso, Natascha Wharton
Director of photography: Zac Nicholson
Production designer: Cristina Casali
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Una Ni Dhonghaile
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Music supervisor: Jen Moss
Casting: Nina Gold
Sales: Pathe International

No rating, 106 minutes