Directed by: Philippa Lowthorpe
Written by: Gaby Chiappe & Rebecca Frayn
Starring: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville
Women have dealt with the issue of being judged solely on their physical appearance for so long now that even the most abhorrent attempts fail to shock me. It can be seen on all sorts of advertising and media, but one of the most unfortunate ones come in the form of pageants as Misebehaviour seeks to chastise. However, with its bits of nuance, this film proves to have the incisiveness to present more than one perspective in this long-fought battle.
With the 1970 Miss World Competition happening in London, feminist activists Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) attempt to show the world the ridiculous nature of this event. Amid the upcoming controversy, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss Grenada, tries to win this competition with the hope of advancing her career.
As someone who has never seen the value of beauty pageants, the dueling ideas held in Misbehaviour certainly causes a fascinating discussion about the parameters of female authorship on a misogynistic platform. As Sally points out in the film, she just wants a seat at the big table. This occurs not only in the pageant space but also in academia, where Sally sees sexism even in the more “sophisticated” areas of society. When focusing on academic issues dealing with women are considered niche, there are big problems to fight. This film presents this feminist battle and while it underserves its story at times, showing the different perspectives deserves its own praise.
The contrasts are stark in this film, as Sally has her children and needs support from her mother. Sally does not ever want to live the domestic lifestyle her mother did and wants to break barriers as to what a woman can accomplish in a patriarchal world. While not receiving as much narrative attention, Jo Robinson represents a more radical way of fighting back where she has no issued defacing symbols of the patriarchy. While having the same ideas, Jo and Sally bump heads plenty of times from the ways they should fight for the equality of women because of their life circumstances and when things begin to cross a line. While Jo has no issue putting her body on the line for the cause, she lives a different lifestyle where Sally needs to think about how her actions will impact her kids. She simply cannot go to jail for her ideals when her children would be left motherless.
On the other side, Jennifer Hosten’s chunk of the story shows a completely different look at the pageant world. While Sally and Jo look at the event as a way to present women like cattle, Hosten uses it for exposure and a launching pad for hopefully a future career. It gets a bit absurd when they have legitimate measurements of the women announced as they walk on stage in sequences that can make anyone’s stomach turn. Hosten wants the pageant to be a launching pad, even if she must use her body for it.
One of the issues this film runs into with this narrative comes from telling this very white feminist story and discounting the women of color in their own battle for equal rights. Not only do these Black women need to fight for equality based on their sex, but also against rampant racism. This fight for equality as shown in this movie comes from a very white lens, even if the film adds in one Black woman holding up signs with the sea of white women protesting the pageant. This gets addressed in a stunning conversation between Sally and Jennifer that eventually occurs but the film never goes deep enough, as it finds more interest in the pageant itself.
Misbehaviour has a wonderful cast of dependably great actors which includes Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, and Lesley Manville. Mbatha-Raw and Knightley continue to prove they can step into a period piece of any era and can kill it while Buckley has plenty of fun with the role of Jo Robinson. They do very well in portraying the different sides of dissent in the battle for feminism and adequately display the struggle. Knightley gets the most to do with this character and dispatches her typically wonderful talent to show Sally’s plight as she wants to do what can push forward the movement, while also avoiding the collateral damage impacting her family.
This film certainly has its bits of comedy, but it revels in the opportunity to make the audience feel sick to its stomach with several instances of blatant and implicit sexism. With enough to make anyone’s blood boil, it gets at how ridiculous and celebrated sexist comments were in this time and reminds us how much it continues to prevail even today. With how prickly it gets, it still manages to tell a worthwhile story about a time where protests were able to get the job done. Misbehaviour aims for crowd-pleasing moments and certainly succeeds in its effort partly due to its cast and its willingness to at least shine a light on multiple perspectives.