MISBEHAVIOUR

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Greg Kinnear, Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes, Lesley Manville.

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In 1970 a group of feminist activists held a very public and very vocal demonstration during the Miss World Pageant in London, which was acknowledged as the start of the nascent Womens’ Liberation Movement. The women objected to the tawdry objectification and exploitation of women in such pageants as they were being judged purely on their looks and deportment rather than their aspirations and achievements. The pageant was already embroiled in controversy as there were two coloured women in the contest that year, including one from South Africa (this was the era when South Africa suffered backlashes against their policy of apartheid). Both were initially considered as token inclusions.

Bob Hope, who was hosting the event, came in for some virulent criticism for his casual misogyny, his sexist jokes and off-colour innuendo. That sort of material may have gone down well with US soldiers in Vietnam during his USO shows, but it was obvious that he had misjudged the audience and the changing times with his tired material here. Hope and others on the stage were pelted with bags of flour as the protesters voiced their opinion.

The pageant organisers were Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawkes) who had started the competition back in 1951. They managed to lure Hope to London to host the glamourous event which would be beamed to global television audience of 100 million.  

Sally Alexander (Kiera Knightley) was a single mother and history student who had found herself opposing the patriarchal nature and obvious sexism of academia, where her future tenure was decided by a board consisting of crusty old conservative males. She was slowly drawn into the world of female activists through the feisty and anarchic Jo (Jessie Buckley, who delivered a superb breakout performance in Wild Rose), although she does not immediately identify with the women or their methods.

Misbehaviour is written by Rebecca Frayn (Their Finest, etc) and Gaby Chiappe, who juggle a couple of narrative strands that neatly dovetail during the climactic pageant itself. They focus on the activities of the protesters as they prepare for their very public statement as well as concentrating on several of the contestants themselves. Frayn and Chiappe said that they were inspired largely by a 2010 episode of a BBC series which reunited some of the contestants from that memorable Miss World Pageant, although they have taken some dramatic licence with the story. Frayn and Chiappe confront the prevalent attitude of sexism of the era head on and allow audiences to cheer for the protagonists. While the film is overtly political in addressing the misogyny and tacky nature of the pageant it also subtly criticises the racism and gender politics of the era, but it is let down a little by some cliched writing.

The director is BAFTA award winner Philippa Lowthorpe, who has worked on tv series like Call The Midwife and The Crown, etc, but her handling of the material lacks any real sense of urgency.

Period detail is authentic, especially as it depicts the many attempts by Alexander’s family to juggle their television antenna to try and pick up better reception, which will strike a chord with many of a certain age. Costume designer Charlotte Walter also has an eye for authenticity.

Lowthorpe draws empathetic performances from her cast. Knightley has made a speciality out of appearing in earnest period dramas, and she delivers another solid performance here as the outspoken Sally whose anger grows as the film progresses. She is ably supported by Buckley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from Black Mirror, etc) who plays one of the contestants. Mbatha-Raw brings a dignity to her performance as Miss Grenada, who eventually won the pageant. Lesley Manville plays Dolores Hope here, bringing some depth to her role as the long-suffering trophy wife left often in her husband’s shadow. Greg Kinnear plays Hope as a rather oily chauvinistic character; in reality he looks nothing like the famous comedian, apart from a prosthetic nose, but he does capture some of his mannerisms and dress sense.

At the end of the film, we get to meet some of the real life characters and learn about what has happened to them in the fifty years since the events depicted here.

Misbehaviour follows other well-meaning crowd-pleasing films dealing with women striving for liberation and equality, such as Made In Dagenham, Suffragette, but by comparison this is a bit lukewarm.

★★★

 

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