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Review: Misbehaviour

Photo via Variety/Pathé

The Miss World beauty pageant began in 1951 in London, a competition that still exists with only minor alterations to this day.  I mean, did you know you still can’t compete in Miss World if you’ve ever given birth to a child? But I digress.  Featuring an international delegation of women, the competition is controversial for, amongst other things, its judgement of the female form and the perpetuation of the “ideal” perception of beauty.  Misbehaviour focuses on the true events of the 1970 Miss World pageant where the uprising of the Women’s Liberation movement brought this controversy to the forefront. 

Sally (Keira Knightley) is a divorced mother to a young daughter, applying for college admission to continue her studies in History.  Despite questions from the all-male admissions panel about how she could even fathom studying and being a mother all at once, she is granted a position.  Once she is part of the history department she is continually ignored, her male colleagues patronizing her intelligence as Sally’s anger and frustration mounts.  “Turns out my seat at the table is actually a high chair,” she laments to her new friend. 

That friend is Jo (Jessie Buckley) who lives in a commune of women, looking to bring notice to the inequality faced not just in the workplace but also in day to day life.  The two meet at a gathering for the new Women’s Liberation movement where the speaker asks, “What does it mean to be a woman? That our work will be underpaid and our minds undervalued.”  This speaks to Sally, though she doesn’t agree with Jo’s often delinquent behaviour to get their message noticed.  When Jo’s group decides to protest the Miss World competition noting its degradation of women, Sally isn’t initially keen to participate, but when she sees her daughter emulating the beauty queens on television, she decides to join the women in their fight. 

But gender inequality isn’t the only thing that is causing controversy at the pageant in 1970.  With the inclusion of the first Black South African woman, Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison) the competition also makes headlines during a time of Apartheid rule in that nation bringing the discussion of racial equality to the forefront.  Despite the claims they want to stay out of politics the pageant finds themselves entrenched in it.  Alongside Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the two Black competitors come to terms with the fact that they are never meant to win.  With Sally and company battling against the pageant and Jennifer battling to win, it’s clear that one woman sees the competition as a way up, while one sees it as a way to keep women down. 

The first five minutes of the film set the tone of Misbehaviour nicely, between Sally’s stark judgement at the university table, to Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) announcing women’s measurements as an introduction in front of troops in Vietnam there is no question that there is going to be some strong messaging ahead.  Director Philippa Lowthorpe doesn’t hesitate to make this clear and present it in a straightforward manner.  However, the one falter here is that there is a lot of controversy to be had.  At just 106 minutes, the film makes it hard to focus on both the feminist movement and the importance of racial equality, the latter getting lesser attention here.  With two groups fighting for equality in different ways, there appears to be almost enough source material for two films.  

Keira Knightley is a good anchor here, typically reliable, but it’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw who stands out.  As Miss Grenada she is graceful yet steadfast in her portrayal, another example of her rising star.  Building on her already impressive resume that includes Belle, The Morning Show and the stunning San Junipero episode of Black Mirror, the actor has solidifies her presence as one to watch.  The scene where Sally and Jennifer finally cross paths, their plights intersecting, is a bright point in the film.  The supporting players, the aforementioned Buckley and Kinnear as well as Lesley Manville and Rhys Ifans round out an impressive cast that doesn’t falter. 

There is perhaps a more serious film beneath Misbehaviour’s surface, and more to explore about the different ways feminism is viewed, about the different faces of beauty.  But the movie keeps things on the lighter side, despite firmly imparting its messages.  It’s an entertaining watch that’s meant to be meaningful, which can sneak up on you by its conclusion.  A “feel good” film, a definite crowd-pleaser, yet in watching it one is reminded on just how much work still needs to be done both in gender equality and racial equality.  The last frame is a rallying cry noting, despite the film taking place fifty years after the events depicted that, “Attempts to bring down the patriarchy remain ongoing.”   

Misbehaviour was released in cinemas earlier this year in the UK.  It arrives on VOD and digital platforms in North America September 25th.  

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