Film & Television

Progress Isn’t Pretty in ‘Misbehaviour’

“We’re not beautiful! We’re not ugly! We’re angry!”

This was the war cry in 1970 when a group of activists targeted the Miss World contest in London. The protesters were offended by the pageant’s objectification of women’s bodies, and made their feelings known by holding up signs, throwing flour bombs and rotten fruit, and storming the stage with water pistols. Their live, on-air protest was watched by millions and made headlines around the globe.

Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, available now as video on demand, would have you believe that the occasion launched the women’s liberation movement — which might be news to all the demonstrators who had participated in a similar event at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City two years earlier. But the chronology of the two happenings shouldn’t really get in the way. Misbehaviour is clever and entertaining, with solid performances from its colorful cast. More importantly, it achieves an impressive balance. It celebrates its feminist heroines without belittling the beauty show’s contestants or even the pageant’s rather clownish organizers. In fact, for a movie centered around a conflict, there are almost no bad guys. Almost. Just one, really, but we’ll get to him a little later.

Keira Knightly, a very beautiful actress who doesn’t seem to mind looking drab when a role calls for it, plays Sally Alexander, a “mature student” who is trying to pursue a university degree as a divorcée and mother. The (all-male) deans charged with interviewing her for admission slip each other notes, rating her appearance as a 7 out of 10, before asking sexist questions about how she plans to balance schoolwork and childcare. To her surprise, she’s accepted, but faces continued discrimination and condescension. When she tells her advisor that she plans to use her thesis to explore women in the labor movement, he suggests she should look for a topic that’s “less niche.”

Sally, who is trying to advance from within the system — “If I’m in it, it won’t be the male establishment any more, will it?” she explains — is at first turned off by the somewhat more radical (and much less respectful) attitude of Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, Judy). Jo lives in a women’s commune, makes art, and spends her days decorating London with angry, feminist graffiti. Sally and Jo have a disdain-at-first-sight relationship until Sally manages to rescue Jo from the police. From then on (with only a handful of disagreements), they are sisters in arms. 

“What happened to wanting a seat at the table?” Jo challenges her. Sally shrugs, “My seat at the table turned out to be a highchair.”

Meanwhile, we meet the young women who have come to London to represent their countries and compete for the Miss World crown. Although Miss United States (Suki Waterhouse) is confident and Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager) is favored to win, the pageant also includes two black contestants: Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle) and Pearl Jansen, Miss “Africa South,” (Loreece Harrison), a last-minute addition after a reporter makes accusations of racism because Miss South Africa (Emma Corrin, soon to be Diana in The Crown) is white. The Morleys (Keeley Hawes and Rhys Ifans), proud owners of Miss World, have also enlisted an army of prim and proper chaperones.

The film switches back and forth between the clandestine strategies of Sally, Jo, and their motley crew of militants, and the inner workings of the Miss World competition. The pageant girls are put through their paces, with costume fittings, hair and makeup, hours of rehearsal, and closely supervised socializing. The Morleys take the show very seriously (Ifans dons a cape and crown to demonstrate how the winner should react to her good fortune in a delightfully silly scene), and we soon realize that it’s serious business for the young women as well. Some need the prize money; some see it as a ticket out of an unexceptional life. Jennifer hopes that it will launch her career as a journalist. But Pearl, who has been threatened by South African officials not to speak about apartheid, tells her sadly, “Neither of us are going to win.”

The backstage pageant world is actually quite fun to watch (Charlotte Walter gets credit for over-the-top international ensembles, as well as everyday wear that evokes the early 70s). By now, we’re accustomed to expect some level of victimization and sexual harassment in depicted situations like this, but what’s surprising is the almost total absence of #metoo subject matter. Almost total.

Misbehaviour tells parallel stories about two sets of young women trying to improve things. Both the feminists and the contestants want more and better opportunities — they’re just using diametrically opposed methods of getting there. However, the movie’s talented writers, Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, add a third narrative that gives toxic masculinity a familiar face. In 1970, the celebrity emcee of Miss World was actor/comedian Bob Hope. Here, he’s played by a nearly unrecognizable (thanks to terrific acting and an effective, if creepy, prosthetic nose) Greg Kinnear. The man is a womanizing snake who has promised never to host the show again. Years earlier, his disgusted wife (the always elegant Lesley Manville) reminds him often, he “brought Miss World home with him” and promised to make her a star. 

There are many facets to Miss World — earlier, Sally’s young daughter twirls in costume jewelry, “Look I’m a Miss World lady!” to the horror of her mum and delight of her grandmother (Downton’s Phyllis Logan) — but the ugliest by far is embodied by Hope. Frayn and Chiappe didn’t have to reinvent his opening monologue to make the point; the actual transcript spoke for itself.

“I’m very, very happy to be at this cattle market tonight. ‘Mooooooo.’ It is quite a cattle market here tonight,” he leers. “And I’ve been there checking calves. But I don’t want you to think that I’m a dirty old man because I never give women a second thought. My first covers everything.”

Knightly and Mbatha-Raw are finally brought together in a ladies’ room scene that’s marvelous but much too short. Sally has been arrested, but convinces an officer to let her use the loo before she’s carted away. Jennifer has taken refuge there when the demonstration broke out. They face each other. “This was never about you,” Sally tells her. Jennifer explains that she wants to prove to future black girls that they can be seen as beautiful too. 

Misbehaviour is based on real and very public events. In fact, the movie’s creators were inspired by a 2010 BBC radio show that reunited the women involved. (You can — and should — listen to it here.)

“We had no quarrel with the contestants … our argument was with why you have to be beautiful before you get noticed as a woman,” the real Sally remembers.

“I didn’t realize it fully at the time but we were all using that contest as a way to get a message across,” adds Jennifer. “For me it was about race and inclusion — for them, it was about female exploitation.”

At the end of Misbehaviour, as in so many films these days, we see the Sally, Jennifer, and the other real people from the story, fifty years on, and learn what they did with their lives. It’s interesting and uplifting. And, it’s almost as gratifying as watching Kinnear’s hateful Bob Hope get pelted with flour.

Almost

Misbehaviour is available to rent on Amazon.

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