Based on the real-life events of the 1970 Miss World competition, comedy-drama ‘Misbehaviour’ explores the very different perspectives of the women involved with the contest in this eventful year - including Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), the first contestant of colour to claim the title, Pearl Jansen (Harrison), the first black entrant from apartheid-era South Africa, and Sally Alexander (Knightley), a history student who becomes the face of the Women’s Liberation Movement protests about the pageant’s objectification of women.
‘Misbehaviour’ is commendable in terms of having a largely female cast and crew and having been written, produced and directed by women. There’s a nice sense of continuity here, that their filming this story and bringing its themes and issues to a wider audience on the big screen parallels the spirit of the WLM, and of the participation of contestants of colour, highlighting the outdated and sexist conventions of pageants like Miss World to a wider audience.
This is an extraordinary and multi-faceted true-life story, which, to its credit, attempts to explore the seemingly contradictory ideas about what women’s empowerment means to each group involved. For the cool-headed Miss Granada, Jennifer, this means challenging outdated, narrow and even racist beauty standards in the name of greater visibility of women of colour. Sally, Jo (a spirited Jessie Buckley) and the other predominantly young white, British members of the Women’s Liberation Movement however are fighting for a world beyond even this, in which women are valued for more than their physical appearance.
By not taking sides, ‘Misbehaviour’ is generous too, presenting protestors and contestants alike in a respectful manner, with modern and inclusive sensibilities. While the film doesn’t shy away from making the pageantry and pandering of Miss World look absurd and insulting, the contestants themselves are sympathetic, and never judged for participating (no pun intended). Similarly, the protestors in the WLM are at pains to express that their issue is with their systematic oppression of women that’s upheld by promoting a competition such as this as family viewing.
For all that said, there are issues with the film’s tone, structure, and focus. Despite its attempts at light-heartedness, the film’s jokes always feel off-beat or out of place. Yet, the music and rapid-fire cutting in the climactic protesting scene is borderline hysterical in a way that undermines the serious message behind it. The way in which the film’s focus is split between two very different perspectives never really gels in a satisfying way, and an attempt to bridge this gap - a meeting between the newly-crowned Jennifer and a recently-arrested Sally - feels very contrived, without actually offering much of a takeaway in terms of the film’s message.
The scripting, along with somewhat low-key production values, also gives it the feel of a Sunday night BBC drama series, without even the time a tv show would have to really develop the supporting characters, or draw stronger thematic parallels between each woman’s journey. Pearl Jansen, the black South African entrant, is sidelined in a somewhat disappointing way, given that anti-apartheid is initially presented as an issue of great concern to those protesting the contest. Her inclusion in the narrative feels almost as tokenistic as her inclusion in the competition in the 1970s. Similarly, some of the older female characters, such as Sally’s mother and Dolores Hope (a wasted, somewhat miscast Lesley Manville) have a couple of compelling moments that might have been better explored in a multi-part narrative.
Despite its sprawling focus, 'Misbehaviour' is a fair, uplifting and timely tale of female empowerment, with a terrific ensemble cast led by Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha Raw.