Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe.
Starring Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear, Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes, Lesley Manville, Suki Waterhouse, Loreece Harrison, Clara Rosager and Ruby Bentall.
A group of women’s liberation activists plan to stage a protest at the 1970 edition of the Miss World pageant.
The story of the 1970 Miss World event is a fascinating one. An explosion happened outside the venue just days before, there was a corruption scandal over the victory of Miss Grenada and, most importantly for new comedy-drama Misbehaviour, feminist protesters threw flour bombs at host Bob Hope. Philippa Lowthorpe, director of the BBC’s powerful miniseries Three Girls tries her best to untangle the mess and, for the most part, her movie is a rousing success.
Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn’s script segues nicely between two very different worlds, following student activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) as she becomes a part of a women’s lib plan to target Miss World, while also telling the story of the beauty queens competing for the crown. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is terrific as the poised, intelligent Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with Suki Waterhouse as the peppy Miss USA and Loreece Harrison as the first ever black woman to compete for South Africa.
There are a lot of moving parts at play here, but Lowthorpe is able to keep Misbehaviour brisk and breezy, with a light tone that makes the moments of seriousness hit even harder. This is a movie that reasons, entirely fairly, that the best way to take down the patriarchy is to point and laugh at its ridiculousness – here represented by blokey comedian Bob Hope, played by Greg Kinnear as something akin to Woody from Toy Story by way of an online pickup artist course. Kinnear’s performance is loathsome to just the right degree, giving characters like Knightley’s “mature, mature student” and Jessie Buckley’s graffiti-loving firebrand something palpable to fight against.
The Miss World contest itself proves to be a useful monolith, symbolically representing the insidious face of consumer-focused misogyny, casting what Knightley’s character calls a “cattle market” as family entertainment. There’s a refreshing complexity, though, to the approach, questioning the philosophy of the women’s lib movement while also celebrating the general progression towards female empowerment represented by their actions. Mbatha-Raw, especially, represents the nuanced position of intersectionality and shares one potent scene with Knightley that gives the whole film a more sophisticated look.
But the overriding feel of Misbehaviour is one of impish joy, looking back at the delightful chaos caused by women with the bravery to shake the tree of the system and see what tumbles to the floor. There’s bite to the script, certainly, but it comes with enough energy and colour that it never feels like preaching. It’s a film that’s proud of its feminist politics and never shies away from the big themes, while also acknowledging that something lighter gets bums on seats and helps the message to make its way into the world. Perhaps it’s for that reason that the movie shies away from the complex, politically-charged fallout of the contest’s aftermath, which doesn’t quite fit neatly into the central thesis.
The cast fires on all cylinders from start to finish, with Knightley proving an ideal anchor for the packed ensemble. Rhys Ifans, especially, is a joy as the slimy Miss World boss Eric Morley and there’s a memorable cameo from Miles Jupp as his utterly useless assistant. Keeley Hawes makes an impact as Eric’s wife and Buckley delivers another one of her now trademark energetic performances, while Lesley Manville as sadly underused in a potentially interesting role as Hope’s wife that could’ve been given far more room for her to work her magic.
But overall, there’s a joyful lightness of touch to Misbehaviour that allows it to land its political punches while remaining a pleasant slice of multiplex fun for the Wednesday morning, tea-and-biscuits crowd. It’s an important story about a historical milestone for women’s willingness to speak up, which couldn’t feel more timely in today’s political landscape.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.