Misbehaviour – as its name suggests – mixes activism with fun. Director Phillipa Lowthorpe crafts a crowd-pleasing film that delivers a (perhaps surprisingly) nuanced message.
This is actually second film this month to look at the “women’s liberation” movement (after the Australian doco Brazen Hussies). The two clearly share some DNA. Both, for example, explore solidarity and the fault lines in the women’s movement of the 1970s. But with a cast filled with A-list actors, Misbehaviour is clearly designed to catch the eye of filmgoers. While Brazen Hussies looked at the movement in Australia over several years, Misbehaviour focuses on one event – a protest at the 1970 Miss World pageant in London.
Sally Alexander is hoping for a place at London’s University College to study history as a “mature” student. She’s been busy with a family, but wants to get back into study. When she gets in, she imagines having “a seat at the table”. But entrenched attitudes make even getting to the “table” difficult for a woman. By chance she meets Jo Robinson (Jesse Buckley), a passionate activist with a local women’s collective. Jo doesn’t want a seat at the table – she wants to burn the table down. Against the wishes of her straitlaced mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), Sally becomes more involved with the women’s rights group. They hatch a plan to take splashy but non-violent action to disrupt the Miss World show.
Meanwhile, Miss World boss Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) has scored a coup by snaring comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) to host the event. But Bob’s wife Dolores (Lesley Manville) isn’t too keen on the idea. Seems Bob committed a major indiscretion at the same event years before and promised never to return. Morley is also juggling sensitive political issues. To quell anti-apartheid feeling, he’s had to draft in the black “Miss Africa South”, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) – a young woman selected by South African authorities from a factory floor. Morley’s wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) meanwhile is enticing several Caribbean and African diplomats to act as judges, in hopes of improving the pageant’s “optics”. The favourite for the title, Miss Sweden Maj Johansson (Clara Rosager) looks like she doesn’t even want to be there. But for Miss Grenada Pearl Jansen (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a win could change her life.
Lowthorpe won a BAFTA for her work on television (which includes Call the Midwife and The Crown), and clearly knows how to pull a story together. She deftly handles the film’s twin threads. And in the process, she finds the light-and-shade in each. The script from Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe ensures the main characters are rounded out. Even the rather odious Morley gets moments of compassion.
Lowthorpe and her team skillfully evoke the era. The costumes (featuring some amazing fashions), sets and props all reek of the ’70s. Speaking of reeking, you can almost smell the dirty ashtrays. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score – enhanced with hits from the era – add to the feeling of authenticity.
Kiera Knightley (The Aftermath) gets top billing, and delivers an intelligent performance as Sally. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Motherless Brooklyn) plays essentially Sally’s mirror-image character as Pearl and likewise finds the subtleties in the character. Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) makes the most of her showier part as Jo. Perhaps ironically given the subject-matter, Greg Kinnear (Strange But True) and Rhys Ifans (Official Secrets) seem to have the most fun. But special mention has to go to Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) who gives an outstanding performance in a small role as Dolores Hope.
Misbehaviour is something of a wonder. It’s a political film for sure, but it makes its point both subtly and entertainingly. Maybe it’s a little manipulative, but I wanted to cheer at the end.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television