Misbehaviour is in the tradition of other cinema versions of idiosyncratically British events in our social and political history such as The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Pride. Like those others it is exuberant, often funny but with dead serious bits and ultimately a tribute to those who took part.
In this case it’s the story of how the then newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement disrupted the Miss World competition in 1970. The smart script by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe moves even-handedly between the worlds of the campaigning women and the competing beauty queens.
The former are led by single mother and mature academic student Sally (Keira Knightley) and militant activist Jo (Jessie Buckley) while the scenes of the Miss World pageant focus mainly on Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her new best friend Miss Africa South, Pearl Janzen (Loreece Harrison), the young black woman, who is brought in by the organisers at the last moment in addition to the white Miss South Africa to avoid accusations of supporting apartheid. As the organisers, husband and wife team Eric and Julia Morley, Rhys Ifans gets a good deal out of fun out of his character’s daft antics while Keeley Hawes makes it very clear that Julia was the brains behind the whole thing.
Compering the farce on this particular year was American comedian Bob Hope, an unlikely piece of casting in the form of Greg Kinnear, who with a little help from a false nose still manages to get most of the comedian’s mannerisms off pat, while also in support are Lesley Manville as his disenchanted wife and Phyllis Logan as Sally’s ultra conservative mother. Plus a host of “luscious lovelies”, as they might have said at the time, as the excited and surprisingly friendly to each other contestants.
The film is very entertaining and at times hilarious but it also manages to get some smart and serious digs in at the sexism of the male patriarchy of the times. As when Sally at a university tutorial is totally unable to get a word in edgeways in a group of otherwise male students, while one of the most visually shocking scenes is in the actual competition, before the women’s libbers begin their disruption, when the swimsuited women on stage are instructed to turn their backs so the audience can gawp at their behinds. It’s a real cattle show moment.
There is a sequence in the ladies loo between Jennifer and Sally towards the end of the film, when they have an unlikely discussion about the reasons for the disruption, which is a bit contrived and feels suspiciously like “author’s message”, when we’ve already got what the film is telling us. It is also unrealistic, as Sally never gets to do what she went in there for before being hauled off by the police! It is though but a small point in an otherwise entertaining and also thought provoking film, whose events were half a century ago – something which is pointed up by shots at the end of the film of the real life Jo and Sally, now elderly but still sassy looking women. We still haven’t totally abolished that patriarchy though.