Synopsis – A group of women hatch a plan to disrupt the 1970 Miss World beauty competition in London.
My Take – While we all come to know who won the Miss World or Miss Universe title eventually in the next day’s headline, with time evidently they no longer remain the sole focus of entertainment news, that is unless the winner or contestant especially from India decides to make a career shift by getting into films.
Though, a film about women’s liberation in the #MeToo era isn’t the most original idea anymore, this film, which despite having the general appearance of a typical feel-good British, has a lot more to say about the impact beauty competitions made in the 70s, albeit in the form of a flawed yet charming, heartwarming and funny film.
Here, director Philippa Lowthorpe (The Crown) does a fine job of recreating the drab and sexist national climate, which to an extend still exists, and also addresses the fact of reminding us the degrading mess that was the Miss World competition in 1970.
Though nothing outstanding in the film making department, the film splices together the stories of the Women’s Liberation activists who brought the contest to a standstill along with the fierce ambitions of two black contestants, to form a fairly fast-moving and engaging comedy drama that is uplifted by some great performances.
Based on real-life events, the story follows Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a divorced single mother, who in order to grow academically joins a university college in London as a mature history student, however, despite her educated ways to putting things across, she often finds herself undervalued and fighting sexism at every stop of the way. Frustrated with every outcome, Sally finds a distinct medium to express herself when she meets Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), an anarchist who loves graffiti and slogans a bit too much, who introduces her to the Women’s Liberation Movement and soon makes Sally the face of it.
Meanwhile, with 1970 Miss World competition coming up, event founders Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife, Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) find themselves in a snag when extreme protests begin against their open objectification of women on television. But with Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), the world famous British American stand-up comedian, agreeing to host, and their move to include black contestants like Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the first black entrant from apartheid-era South Africa, has all the making of an historic event. However what they don’t know is the Women’s Liberation Movement is planning to make a strong name for themselves at the same venue.
This is an extraordinary and multi-faceted true-life story, which, to its credit, attempts to explore the seemingly contradictory ideas about what women’s empowerment means to each group involved. There are a number of complicated and conflicting issues to grapple with in the telling of this story: the institutional sexism of 1970s Britain; domestic gender norms; apartheid; broader racial and sexual inequality; the conflicting goals and the importance of feminism.
Remarkably, the film does a reasonable job of giving space to each of them, though the bulk of the focus is undoubtedly on the Women’s Liberation Movement, a majority white, middle-class organization who are here presented in a respectful manner, with modern and inclusive sensibilities. As they just want to express their issue of systematic oppression of women that’s upheld by promoting a competition such as this as family viewing.
Though the film doesn’t shy away from making the pageantry and pandering of Miss World look absurd and insulting, the contestants themselves are sympathetic, and have their own stories and their own reasons for wanting to take part. They are not stupid or shallow as people often judge them but instead often join to make money to follow their real pursuits or simply just to escape poverty.
From Bob Hope and his unfunny sexist jokes to the swimsuit “turn around” moment, the film is a time capsule for something that I’m sure many people would much rather forget. It’s also worth a mention that there’s a lot of humor in the film, made possible only by the progress that’s been made over the past fifty years and our ability to laugh, almost with shock, at how the world worked (or didn’t work) for women of the ‘70s.
For all that said, there are issues with the film’s tone, structure, and focus. The way in which the film’s focus is split between two very different perspectives never really gels in a satisfying way, and an attempt to bridge this gap – a meeting between the newly-crowned Jennifer and a recently-arrested Sally, feels very contrived, without actually offering much of a takeaway in terms of the film’s message. It is also somewhat disappointing to see how Pearl Jansen, the black South African entrant, is sidelined in the film, given that anti-apartheid is initially presented as an issue of great concern to those protesting the contest. Her inclusion in the narrative feels almost unwarranted as her inclusion in the competition in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, the all-star cast brings heart and humor to both the pageant’s inner circle and those looking to tear it down. Keira Knightly continues to be an active force to reckon with her selective range of roles she chooses to pick up, with this film just adding on the glorious filmography. Gugu Mbatha-Raw without a doubt delivers one of the picture’s best performances as Miss World contestant Jennifer Houston, a woman with her own political motives, while Jessie Buckley does a convincing job of selling her character’s motives and struggles.
Greg Kinnear does a believably gross job in his role as Bob Hope, as Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes put in pitch perfect performances. In supporting roles, Lesley Manville, Suki Waterhouse, Loreece Harrison, Phyllis Logan and John Heffernan are also effective. On the whole, ‘Misbehaviour’ is an earnest comedy drama which despite sprawling misgivings manages to be uplifting and timely tale of female empowerment.
Directed – Philippa Lowthorpe
Rated – NR
Run Time – 106 minutes