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Misbehaviour (2020)
VOD Reviews

Misbehaviour (2020)

A disappointing, uncharismatic take on a pivotal moment in gender and racial political justice.

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Misbehaviour tells the true story of how a group of women activists representing the newly formed women’s liberation movement disrupted the 1970 Miss World competition in London, in order to challenge the patriarchy and promote their cause to a global audience. This film simultaneously showcases the struggles of racism during that era since The 1970 Miss World Competition was also the first time a black woman was crowned Miss World creating quite an uproar at the time. While the journey of women’s liberation is an important story that needs telling, unlikable characters and missed plot opportunities made this a disappointing experience for such an important part of history.

Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is a young, driven, divorced single mother who overcomes an interview panel of overly judgemental men and gets offered a position to study history at University College London. Keen to make a difference for the lives of many oppressed women in society, she organizes a women’s conference to allow women to come together and talk about equal rights for women. It is here where she meets and eventually befriends a far more aggressive group of activists led by Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley).

Meanwhile, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) are busy organizing the 1970 Miss World Competition and are ecstatic when they secure comedic megastar Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as their host for the show. However the show has come under public scrutiny for the white contestant representing South Africa – a country where apartheid was still being practiced and most of the population is black.

Eric’s solution is to quickly organize South Africa’s first black contestant, Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison), AKA Miss Africa South, in addition to the country’s existing white contestant Jillian Jessup (Emma Corrin), AKA Miss South Africa. Despite the politically uncomfortable position Pearl finds herself in, she manages to make friends with Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), AKA Miss Grenada – another first for the Miss World Competition – who is optimistic about the opportunities the competition can bring her and what her representation would mean for other little black girls.

With Eric and Sally’s opposing ideas on the representation of women it’s inevitable that their two worlds would clash. Opposing the objectification of women and needing a large media platform to spread their message, Sally, Jo and their activist group, decide to disrupt the 1970 Miss World Competition as it airs live to the world. But as they move forward with their plans to change the world, they learn that it is not without its costs and not without its consequences.

Despite finding most of the characters unlikeable – Bob Hope is disrespectful to his wife, Sally neglects her child to fight the cause, Jo and her activists are a bunch of misandrists – the acting is solid and there’s some good laughs to be had – particularly from Rhys Ifans’ flustered host Eric Morley. Ifans is fantastic and the standout performance as an event coordinator with a world perspective trapped in the past and struggling to see that the values and views of the world are changing.

So focused on entertaining the masses, Morley hilariously plows forward to try to put on a good show while dealing with serious political issues and a group of determined activists whose motivations are alien to him. Despite representing a competition that reduces a woman’s value to how a woman looks, Ifans finds an ignorant innocence that made him my favorite character and garnered most of my laughs.

The biggest gripe I have with Misbehaviour is that it feels like two different movies mashed into one. Director Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows and Amazons, Cider with Rosie) has done a great job of getting strong performances from all her actors and putting all the elements together that make a competent movie (I especially liked the archival footage of the marches and photos of the characters at the end), however it’s not enough to make up for a disjointed and weak script that overlooks great story opportunities worth exploring – particularly when they pertain to the development of the main characters.

I found it frustrating seeing great setups like when Sally is disregarded by the men during university discussions or told to rethink/refocus her dissertation topic about looking from the point of view of women workers because it’s too niche i.e. “stay clear of minority interests” only to see nothing come of it. She “wants a seat at the table”, yet we never see her overcome the issues that actually matter to her as a woman in the male dominated education system of the United Kingdom (ok, we get a quick line of text at the end letting us know she became a Professor of Modern History at the University of London). Instead the story focuses on her giving in to a bunch of man-haters and wrecking a TV show – and there’s not really that much to tell on that front.

Then there’s the even more interesting story of South Africa’s dual representation at the competition along with the fact it was the first time a black woman won the competition (as well as second place). The political backdrop for this is far more complicated and story-worthy than a group of activists gate-crashing a show and yelling “shame”, and it’s barely mentioned here.

It felt like it was just there to help pad out a protest story that barely has enough substance to warrant a feature runtime. Only when the film ends do we get a brief explanation of what happens to Pearl Janssen, AKA Miss Africa South and Jennifer Hosten, AKA Miss Grenada, but that’s it.

Even though there are some great moments and a few good laughs in Misbehaviour, it felt like two different movies mashed together with each doing a half-assed job of addressing an important theme and moment in history. Coupled with many unlikable characters and overlooked opportunities with characters who were actually interesting, what might have been an interesting look at the changing cultural landscape ended up as little more than a disappointing experience about a pivotal moment in both gender and racial political justice.

About the Author: Christian Stirling