Misbehaviour movie review: Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley gatecrash Miss World 1970 in all-too-proper British drama

Prahlad Srihari
·6-min read

"We are not beautiful, we are not ugly - WE ARE ANGRY" was the unifying chant that rang through the 1970 edition of one of the most-watched TV shows at the time: Miss World. In protest against a contest which had turned the objectification of women into a global pastime, the Women's Liberation Movement had staged a headline-grabbing coupat the Royal Albert Hall in London. Activists infiltrated the venue, stormed the stage, and hurled tomatoes and flour bombs at beloved host Bob Hope. Their message was clear: a woman's value should not be measured solely on their appearance. It is perhaps even better spelt out by Keira Knightley in Misbehaviour: "The only other forum in which participants are weighed, measured and publicly examined before being assigned their value is a cattle market." Five decades later, "how are beauty pageants still a thing?" remains a valid question.

The British film from Philippa Lowthorpe recounts the backstage drama of the 1970 contest and the protests that followed. Before it was dismissed as "a cattle market," Miss World was promoted as wholesome family entertainment by its organisers, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes). To boost the ratings further, they hired American comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) to buoy the contest in 1970. Before he was scared off stage, the well-known womaniser and misogynist mocked the protestors gathered outside the venue. "Talk about milking a grievance. Moo," he joked in reference to the "cattle market" remark.

Despite what the title suggests, Lowthorpe's film is a little too well-behaved for a subject meant to be inflammatory and characters understandably angry. Embracing British properness in a broad approach to the era ultimately does a disservice to the stories of these gutsy women. It is hard not to see Misbehaviour's colourful dramatisation of women's libbers during 1970s culture wars as a companion piece to Mrs America. Both feature a powerhouse ensemble, even if the women portrayed in Misbehaviour aren't as well-known as the all-star team of Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm in the FX miniseries.

A still from Misbehaviour | Images from Twitter
A still from Misbehaviour | Images from Twitter

A still from Misbehaviour | Images from Twitter

Keira Knightley plays Sally Alexander, a bright and ambitious history student who struggles to be taken seriously by her male peers and professors at college. Her pitch for a dissertation on women's role in the labour movement is immediately dismissed as a "bit niche." So, when she meets a group of fellow second-wave feminists led by the radical Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) on campus, she gets drawn into their acts of civil disobedience. Sally is also a working mother. When she comes home to find her daughter play dress-up like the women on Miss World, she is so appalled she decides to help Jo in her efforts to disrupt the "cattle market."

This is just one side of Misbehaviour's story. The other side is about the contestants of Miss World 1970, in particular Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (GuguMbatha-Raw). Changing racial attitudes in post-colonial Britain meant the public had gotten a little more woke in the 1970s. With public opinion overwhelmingly against apartheid, Miss World invited a Black representative, Pearl Jensen (Loreece Harrison), along with the white Jillian Jessup (Emma Corrin), from South Africa. Through Jennifer and Pearl, we get an insider's view on the contest. Dreaming of a better life, each woman has her own motive for participating in the contest. Jessica is an air hostess who hopes to work in broadcasting one day. For Pearl, it's a short escape from apartheid. She talks of how all her co-workers at the shoe factory in South Africa stood up and cheered when they heard she was going to London. Jennifer went on to become the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World. Pearl was the runner up.

By using an intersectional lens, Lowthorpe recognises the ways social identities overlap and create a compounded experience of discrimination that puts women like Jessica and Pearl at a disadvantage right from birth. The two sides come together in a scene where Jennifer explains how Sally is protesting from a position of privilege. Sally is a white woman disadvantaged only by her gender. Jennifer is a Black woman disadvantaged by her gender and race. A victory at Miss World will thus offer her an opportunity to be heard and recognised. A victory will inspire all the young girls who look like her and see their faces reflected in hers.

For far too long, coloured women have been side-lined by a contest run by white men for white women. Jennifer emphasises that's why women with little to no opportunities are reluctant to take a position against a patriarchal system. Because they stand to lose more: an opportunity they've never had before. What Pearl fears to lose is even more horrifying. Despite the discrimination she faces in her own country, she cannot malign its government in fear she may never get to see her parents again.

Sally's domestic circumstances too inform her perspective. Being a working mother, she depends on her mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan) to raise her daughter. In a key confrontation, Evelyn underscores the sacrifices she had €" and continues €" to make for her family, and wants Sally to settle down and follow suit. Sally admits her mother couldn't live her life the way she wanted, but wants to ensure her daughter can. We witness internal disagreements within the feminist commune too. Sally wants to change the system from within. Jo wants to knock it down altogether. But Sally manages to convince Jo and co they need the establishment's help to get the message out before taking it down. Knightley is as comfortable as she always is in a period piece. Buckley lends anarchic energy to the proceedings. But it is Mbatha-Raw who makes for the most impactful presence, capturing a critical intersection rarely acknowledged in pageant discourse.

Aiming for a multi-faceted perspective, Misbehaviour highlights the conflict along the lines of race, gender, and class which shaped these women's experiences. But it refuses to devote itself to fully fleshing out one woman's story. If it had focused merely on Sally, the film could have examined the inner workings of a movement beyond the slogans and protests. But it would have been a far more compelling drama if its subject was either of Jennifer and Pearl. Instead, we are treated to supplementary perspectives of Julia trying to deal with all the controversies, and Bob Hope's long-suffering wife Dolores (Lesley Manville). Maybe, one day if we're lucky, Lowthorpe will take inspiration from her peers across the Atlantic and give us a miniseries akin to Mrs America, where each episode recentres the struggle to a single figure.

Misbehaviour joins a canon populated by didactic entries like Made in Dagenham and Suffragette. Splitting the difference between a classroom movie and a conventional crowd-pleaser, they are all more illustrative than reflective of British history. It's a pity that a film written and directed by women, and starring some of the most gifted British actresses, can't add anything new to the conversation around intersectional feminism.

Misbehaviour releases in Indian theatres on 22 January.

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