Misbehaviour (2020) - Philippa Lowthorpe
Misbehaviour tells the story of the beginning of the Women's Liberation Movement and their protest at the 1970 Miss World contest. It's baffling watching Misbehaviour and realizing that so recently the Miss World contest was the most-watched show on TV. More people watched Miss World than saw the 1966 World Cup Final or the Moon Landings. Taking a moment to reflect on that only compounds the shocking reality that a few decades ago existed in the UK, and around the world. The BBC eventually stopped broadcasting Miss World in the late 80s.
Philippa Lowthorpe's excellent retelling of this story has two key strengths that make the film such a success. Firstly, she has assembled a stellar cast that includes Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, and Greg Kinnear. Secondly, despite the seriousness of the themes explored in the film, Misbehaviour lighthearted fare, meaning it delivers its strong message through laughs and entertainment, making them resonate much more powerfully. The film also leans fully into the absurdity of the Miss World contest and how it conducted and judged.
The film, however, isn't polemic. It navigates the competition and its exploitation as well as the opportunities it offers for women from around the world in a delicate, intelligent way that reminds both the audience and the central characters that every situation has multiple views and interpretations. Most notably this includes representatives from Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the double candidates from South Africa. The black competitor being introduced from Africa South.
The film opens with Keira Knightley's ambition Sally Alexander attempting to get into university as a mature student. During the interview process, in which she faces an all-male board who looks at her with stern, condescending faces, she is asked challenging questions about both her education and her personal situation. This opening is nicely handled as it echoes how the women of Miss World will later be judged in terms unequal to their male counterparts. While Sally is judged on her personal circumstances; being a single mother living out of wedlock with a man, rather than her academic capabilities, later the Miss World contestants are judged on their measurements and physical attributes and nothing else. One excellent moment sees the contestants turn so to show their behinds to the judges. Lowthorpe chooses to avert the male gaze at this moment, instead of focusing on the women, cringing and grimacing as they are physically judged.
Through Sally's passionate commitment to women's liberation, she attends a lecture which is also attended by the more anarchic and aggressive women's liber Jo Ann Robinson (a superb, gleeful Jessie Buckley). Unexpectedly, these two characters are thrust together and slowly realise that even if their methods differ greatly, they are still fighting the same fight.
Banding together, and gradually bringing other disparate feminist movements together they decide that the Miss World contest represents the perfect moment to launch their movement and gain national and even global exposure to the plight facing women. This is another of the films strong points. It navigates the range of opinions, approaches, rhetoric, and beliefs of the women's movement without ever overloading the film with propaganda or manifestos. The film also never judges the actions of each group, merely showcasing that at the time women had cultivated various progressive groups, all of whom had different opinions on how the take the fight to the patriarchy. Eventually, they agree that the Miss World contest would represent the perfect ideological moment and plans are set to protest the event.
Meanwhile, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifan) and his wife Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) are planning the years contest. It is here that much of the films humour is derived and tone set. Morley is old-fashioned, prideful (he invented the contest) and under increasing pressure to acknowledge the shifting global landscape (most notably in the film Apartheid and South Africa). His wife Julia seems much more aware and adept at evolving the competition and shrewdly, and inevitably in a landmark way, approaches key globally diverse figures to become judges.
There are numerous scenes in which the women are measured, coached and assessed they are prepared by Morley for the live broadcast. In these scenes, we get to meet some of the contestants, most notably Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Hosten as Miss Grenada, Loreece Harrison as Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen. But we also see how important the competition is for Miss USA (Suki Waterhouse), and Miss Sweden's (Clara Rosager) apathy to her being the favourite. This is another of the film's strengths as we see a range of feelings towards both the competition and the role of women in the world. Through Miss Grenada and Miss Africa South, the film also touches on the balance between gender and race issues. There is a powerful conversation between Jennifer and Pearl about the oppressive countries they come from, and how winning Miss World might open up the world to more opportunities and privileges for them. This helps contextual the struggle of the Women's Liberation Movement as the film charts the spectrum of freedoms and oppressions experienced by women around the world.
The film saves its most powerful moments for the last few moments of the film. As the film ends Sally, Jo Ann, and their fellow protestors are charged for disturbing the peace and other offenses, and their movement goes global thanks to the national press coverage of their protest. Over the film's final credits, each actor stares defiantly directly into the camera and we cut to the real women, in 2020, learning about how their lives how unfolded. It's a powerful ending that reminds us of the real-life story we've just witnessed but also gives a real face to the women who began the Women's Liberation Movement, and the contestants of Miss World, and how from this monumental historical moment their lives flourished in interesting ways.
Misbehaviour is an excellent retelling of the 1970 Miss World protest and the beginning of the Women's Liberation Movement which thanks to its lighter tone and style and some exceptional performances manages to be extremely entertaining, moving, educational and inspirational.