Misbehaviour is a charming British comedy-drama that tells the stranger than fiction tale of the 1970 Miss World contest. The televised event was hijacked by feminist protesters, leaving host Bob Hope covered in flour bombs, and has been hailed as an early milestone in the women’s liberation movement.
Miss World was once, bafflingly, a family-friendly event covered by the BBC and broadcast around the world. Founded by London businessman Eric Morley (a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (an underused Keeley Hawes), more people watched the 1969 contest than the World Cup and the Moon Landing. The Morley’s convince Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) to host the show once again, much to the anger of his repressed wife Dolores (a wasted Lesley Manville). Bob Hope is portrayed as the king of perverts; a man so arrogant he’s indexed his gags just in case there’s ever a museum dedicated to him.
Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is a history student at University College London. In the opening scene, we meet her waiting for her entrance interview, the only woman in a row of young boys. The professors are more concerned about her childcare situation than her academic prowess. She soon realises her place at the table is a high chair, frequently spoken down to by her professor and fellow students. Meanwhile, Jo Robinson (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley) is a little more direct in her anger, graffitiing slogans on sexist billboards and designing aggressive anti-patriarchy posters. Sally’s mother (Phyllis Logan) is resentful that the young women her generation have raised view them as having sold their soul to domesticity.
Bookish Sally, a divorced mother of a daughter who’s becoming infatuated with the beauty of the Miss World, becomes drawn into Jo’s carefree life. She starts to join feminist meetings in a communal sackcloth squalor. It’s here the group plot their various demonstrations, including an invasion of the Miss World contest.
Misbehaviour is careful to not mock the contestants. They’re portrayed as three-dimensional women with ambitions, backstories, and brains. Among them is the temperamental ‘Miss Sweden’ Maj (Clara Rosager), the desperate ‘Miss USA’ Sandra (Love, Rosie’s Suki Waterhouse) and ‘Miss Guyana’ Jennifer (Belle’s Gugu Mbatha Raw). Misbehaviour understands that women, especially in that era, had to play men’s games to get anywhere—whether it was trying to outsmart them in academia or line up in a swimsuit in the hope of landing their dream job.
It’s not just the female liberation movement that has its eye on disrupting the event. To ward off anti-apartheid protestors, the Morley’s have hastily selected a second South African candidate. The two less popular contestants of colour, Pearl (a sparkling Loreece Harrison) and Jennifer, have something more to lose. By standing on that stage and being crowned Miss World, they become role models for all the young girls who were brought up to believe their dark skin isn’t beautiful. The script is especially sensitive to the intersectional complexities of this early wave of feminism and the casual racism ingrained into many. Women of colour could only dream of being in the position their white counterparts unhappily found themselves.
Misbehaviour isn’t really a #MeToo movie, but it does show how we got there. Director Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows & Amazons) and screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe (Their Finest) ensure it’s always kept light and charming. Like Pride (2014) and Made in Dagenham (2010), Misbehaviour balances stomach-churning injustices with likeable characters. The sight of young women lining up with the backs to the camera, so judges can inspect their derrieres in swimsuits, is hard to watch today.
Buckley is luminously devilish as the feisty northerner Jo. She has good chemistry with Knightley, who perfectly portrays the slow grinding down of women’s patience by the casual sexism around her. At one point her professor tells her that concentrating on women’s history was too niche, Knightley’s tight jaw and pursed lips express more than the script ever could.
Rhys Ifans plays Eric Morley rather like Carry On’s Sid James (dirty cackle included) and steals every scene he’s in. His repertoire with Miles Jupp during the rehearsals bring much-needed comedy to the drama. Greg Kinnear’s Bob Hope is suitably cringe-worthy, with a set of very unfunny jokes about groping women. Manville and Hawes are two of the finest British actresses working today, so it’s a shame (and ironic) that they’re both brushed aside in underwritten wife roles.
Misbehaviour suffers from being a little too polite. It lacks enough comedy to give it real bite, plus a truly a heart-breaking scene to draw in audiences. For a film with such a strong message, it’s a bit too… pleasant. Protest and identity politics have their corners softened to broaden the film’s appeal. You can’t help but feel like these women, filled with such righteous anger, would be unimpressed that their story was portrayed so safely.
This isn’t the most exciting movie, but Misdirection does excel at showing how far we’ve come… but also, in the month Hollywood sex predator Harvey Weinstein was imprisoned, how far we still have left to go.
Cast & Crew
director: Philippa Lowthorpe.
writers: Gaby Chiappe & Rebecca Frayn (story by Rebecca Frayn).
starring: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans & Greg Kinnear.