Misbehaviour, the latest film from director Philippa Lowthorpe (Call the Midwife, The Crown) is, on the surface, a story about the women liberation movement’s protests of the 1970 Miss World competition, but is actually played as more of a light, heartwarming and funny film about feminism.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a surprise there hasn’t previously been a biopic of the 1970 Miss World competition; a controversial event in a changing world even without the real-life drama that enveloped it. Two South African contestants at the peak of apartheid, an anarchist bomb attack, accusations of jury-rigging, the concept of the competition in its entirety and, the central tent of Misbehaviour, the live-on-TV flour-bombing of the event by women's liberation activists.
While women’s liberation was already a force to be reckoned with in the late sixties, it had not yet erupted into a visible, powerful movement. Not until the actions of Sally Alexander live on the BBC, and it is she that Keira Knightley plays. For a good portion of the film, Knightley’s middle-class character lightly bumbles through her life, frustrated but ineffective. It’s only as she slowly gets pulled into the commune life of Jessie Buckley’s working-class women’s libbers that we start to see a little steel from the character, and the actress. Only when we see the two of them bouncing off each other, sharing ambitions, chemistry and resolve, that things really come alive. It’s only as the stakes get higher that the light frothiness that borders on pastiche becomes something more.
As Knightley and Buckley tell the story of the competition, and their opposition to it, from the outside, there is a parallel story within. Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes ham it up to comedic effect, yet it’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada, who steals the show. Throughout, the beauty queens are not depicted as stereotypes of the pageant world, but Mbatha-Raw takes this a step further with a nuanced character and performance. Hosten’s story could easily have been the primary focus of Misbehaviour, with Sally Alexander’s activities the secondary narrative strand. There’s a lot of richness to that story, from the personalities, to the politics, though the less said about Greg Kinnear’s paper-thin Bob Hope impersonation the better.
It isn’t until the denouement that the two strands intersect directly, when the two worlds meet in a wholly invented encounter to draw the movie together. It is here that an attempt is made to bring everything together: the white middle-class feminism and the need to even be seen at all, to have to fight for a place in front of the world’s eyes, even if it is as the first non-white Miss World.
Sadly, this too brief introspection is indicative of the rest of the movie: a light-hearted family film that will prove educational, but with leanings towards a serious biopic and study of different struggles of feminism at the dawn of the awakening of the women’s liberation movement.
Misbehaviour opens nationwide in UK cinemas on March 13