Phillipa Lowthorpe’s new film “Misbehaviour” works on some levels, doesn’t work on others, but in terms of an underdog feminist story of empowerment and rebellion against a repressive society (as it was no doubt intended) it falls resoundingly flat.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s was an interesting time in history, and there’s plenty of fascinating stories out there to tell and countless women who would have made strong subjects for them. I just couldn’t help but feel as though this particular story, namely the newly formed “Women’s Liberation Front” sneaking into the 1970 Miss World contest and protesting the event, wasn’t necessarily the best choice to showcase the movement. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but by the end of the film, its the contestants who come across as selfless, generous, having gone through adversity in their lives and deserving of recognition, rather than the protesters themselves.
“Misbehaviour” tells the true story of Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a young mother studying at the University College, London, who alongside the newly formed Women’s Liberation Front, organise to disrupt the final of the Miss World 1970 competition by throwing flour bombs, waving noisy instruments and yelling from the audience. Parallel to this is the story of the Miss World contestants themselves, specifically the entrant for Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who became famously the first black entrant for her country and to ever win Miss World. The two stories run more or less side by side until they converge at the final and Alexander and Hosten meet.
From what I could tell, the film is pretty accurate in terms of representing 1970s England; the costumes and set design are particularly good and the soundtrack matches the world nicely. The film does do well in highlighting some of the more unseemly aspects of the Miss World contest back then, the more disturbing of which including the contestants being read out with their measurements, the contestants having to turn around so that the judges and audience could examine their bodies from behind as well as in front, and a whole barrage of lewd jokes from the host for that year, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear). It stops short of demonising the entire event though, which I think was sensible. The film shows how much it means to the contestants to represent their country and act as a role model for younger women, that it represents an incredible opportunity for them to travel and see the world, and that, most importantly, they don’t see themselves as oppressed. There’s a particularly nice little moment where Jennifer Hosten practices her walk on stage to an empty room, and you can see the exhilaration on her face.
By contrast, when Alexander joins the Women’s Liberation Front, its participants, particularly Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) come across largely as petulant children who spend their time defacing street signs and dodging police for petty crimes with an enormous sense of self importance. It was interesting to see how the two different groups of women were portrayed, because it became much more difficult to root for the group of British women living in 20th century Britain once the contestants from Grenada and South Africa sat down and discussed what it was like to be living under Apartheid or how much representing her country meant to someone like Jennifer Hosten, having come from nothing. There’s an interesting moment just after the protest takes place, where Robinson is sitting in the back of a police car and one of the other protesters says to her “I only heard about this on the news, I’ve left my baby with the neighbour”. For the first time in the film, Robinson is actually faced with real life consequences for what she’s doing; the self righteousness and swagger are gone and she’s genuinely scared.
Knightley as Alexander is nothing too remarkable, Knightley more or less plays herself and is largely wooden and stiff in her performance. Part of that is due to Knightley herself but I imagine a great deal is due to who she was playing too; just because an event happened doesn’t necessarily mean that those involved or even the event itself will translate well into film. I thought this when Ryan Gosling played Neil Armstrong in “First Man” – obviously the moon landing was an extraordinary achievement, didn’t stop Neil Armstrong from still being a pretty boring guy. I was glad however when Alexander and Hosten had a moment together towards the end of the film; both were strong women who were looking to further themselves in the world, even if their methods of doing so were so vastly different and it was interesting to see them both put forward their case to the other.
The film closes with snapshots of the women involved in the protest and those of Miss Grenada and Miss South Africa and what they had achieved since then. Even now I can’t remember what Sally Alexander or Jo Robinson went on to do with their lives, but know that Jennifer Hosten, amongst other things, went on to become High Commissioner to Canada from Grenada. It’s Hosten’s story which saves this film; the first ever black woman to win Miss World is an extraordinary achievement and an actual fascinating story, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw playing the part wonderfully. Unfortunately, the plotline about the protesters picketting the Miss World contest just wasn’t a captivating one and in the great scheme of the women’s liberation movement, probably shouldn’t have even been in the top five for consideration.
By Jock Lehman