Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.
But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.
But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.
Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.