Sometimes shifts in history can be predicted, and other times they happen in unexpected places—such as in the 1970 Miss World competition held every year in London. The film Misbehaviour re-creates the paths crossing the competition itself and a group of devoted, motivated feminists who believed the beauty contest objectified women by placing looks over all else when judging a woman’s value in the world. Today, that opinion seems obvious. But in one of the last holdovers of early 20th century gender roles, beauty pageants were revered and defended by many, even as the contestants were asked to stand in swimsuits with their backs to the judges, audience, and cameras so that people could get a good look at their backsides.
Although it oversimplifies things a bit too often in the hands of director Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows and Amazons) and writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, Misbehaviour does get a decent amount right as well. The film focuses on both putting together the pageant, run by Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes), as well as plans to somehow disrupt the globally televised event, as organized by women’s studies grad student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and an all-female activist group led by Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, currently in Netflix’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things and the upcoming season of FX’s “Fargo”), who is more interested in taking action than handing out leaflets.
While the portions of the film that revolve around Alexander and Robinson are interesting, they also seem a bit generic and stale, following a familiar pattern of movies about protest movements that center on a specific event. Still, there are a few individual moments that stand out, including one involving Alexander going on a news-oriented talk show to make her case about beauty contests and being talked down to by both the male host and a former contestant who doesn’t feel she’s ever been exploited because she chose the contest life. It’s a deflating moment for her, but she uses it as motivation for the next step in her version of a revolution. Alexander’s home life is also of interest. She’s a divorced mother, living with a new partner who supports her fully, and leaning on her mother who doesn’t believe in anything she stands for and has no issues letting her impressionable granddaughter know it.
The contest preparation is perhaps the more curious part of the film, as we watch contestants from all over the world rehearse and interact, as they catch glimpses of the protests on TV and outside their hotel. The film zeroes in on Miss Granada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has the added burden of being one of the very few Black contestants and is paid very little attention during press interviews. She bonds to a degree with Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), who is the first Black contestant from South Africa (still very much under apartheid in 1970). In an odd decision, the contest also had a second Miss South Africa (a white woman). Hosten also befriends contest favorite Miss Sweden, Maj Johansson (Clara Rosager), who is one of the few contestants actually hearing the protesters and feeling especially used by the contest and her country.
For a bit of comic relief, Misbehaviour also features the host of that year’s event, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), who agrees to emcee the contest despite his wife Dolores (a grossly under-used Lesley Manville) being hesitant since the last time he hosted the event he brought home one of the contestants thinking he could kickstart a career in Hollywood for her. But Hope swears to behave better, at least off stage. It’s his off-color, blatantly sexist jokes on stage that motivate the protestors hidden in the audience on show night to begin launching their disruption.
Events come to their natural conclusion with no real surprises, and the contest itself managed to finish up with a few surprises of its own when the winner was announced in front of 100 million viewers. But there’s still something lacking in Misbehaviour. There’s no real sense of danger or consequence. If the disruption fails, some people might go to jail, but we assume no real consequences will result. It’s an absolutely worthy cause, and the movie does a terrific job capturing the desperation and frustration of the women involved, but their vague conversations about revolution and dismissal of any woman who didn’t want to go to the lengths they do seems dismissive and unfair. The lead performances push us through some of the less-than-successful aspects of the film, and just as a document of a major, turning-point event in feminist history, it’s worth checking out, but just barely.
Misbehaviour is now playing on via VOD.
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