Misbehaviour REVIEW – A Tame Riot

A fascinating look into the events of the Miss World pageant in 1970.

Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour
Image from Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour explores the events of the Miss World pageant in 1970, with history-making turns on both sides of the fence. On one side you have Keira Knightley’s Sally and Jessie Buckley’s Jo, well-educated women who demand equality for women in society. This means women getting a seat at the table, moving away from typical gender roles of women being homemakers, as well as being looked at beyond the capacity of beautiful and desirable objects.

We begin the film with Sally being interviewed for admission to the University of London, yet see the all-male panel not take her seriously as an academic, once again looking at her merely as a beautiful woman. She is often sidelined by her peers in academic discussions as well. This anger that she feels bubbling up inside her leads her to joining a women’s rights group that Jo is a part of, and soon, the group finds themselves concocting a plan to hold a demonstration at the Miss World pageant.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe then proceeds to show us the other side of the fence, where we are given a closer look into the lives of these contestants. While Sally and company wonder how these women can allow themselves to be objectified, it is because they don’t understand that some women don’t have the privileges accorded to them, they who are white and educated. For some of these women, being a part of the Miss World paegant allows them to travel, gain an experience, and in some cases, be somebody when they were nothing before.

Within the pageant space there is also the whole matter of the South African contestants, since the country was going through apartheid at that point. When accused of being racist for allowing a white contestant to represent the country, owner of the event Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) retorts that a black South African girl has also been chosen, and quickly musters up a girl to shut up the dissenters. Pearl Jansen is Miss Africa South, and she is portrayed with equal doses of joy and poignancy by actress Loreece Harrison.

Pearl and Miss Grenada’s Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) briefly discuss their background during some festive activities. While Jennifer speaks of representation, and wanting young girls from her country to see someone who looks like them win on the world stage, Pearl is content to just be there for the experience, though she walks on eggshells since she was explicitly warned not to talk about anything happening over in South Africa. The film itself appears to be on tenterhooks regarding this as well, with the whole discussion being swept under the carpet as quickly as possible. The film does pander to a mainstream crowd, keeping the storytelling light on its feet, so even though the title is misbehaviour, we never see the film really daring to venture beyond its curated safe space.

Lowthorpe understands that for this to be a feminist film, all points of view must be fleshed out, so we can see what each individual woman is chasing, and the areas they are hoping to affect change in. That being said, the film is a tad lopsided, because we spend more time with Sally and Jo, and their escapades, as opposed to Jennifer and Pearl. There isn’t much in the way of conversation for the latter group as well, just a handful of moments, with the aforementioned conversation between Pearl and Jennifer, as well as Jennifer’s talk with Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager).

The Miss World contest offers a space for the discussion of female beauty, and how a black woman has never won the title, because the men who judge the contest are limited in their perception of beauty. For them, Miss Sweden is the epitome of beauty, with her blond hair and pale skin, while a beautiful woman like Jennifer is not even on their radar. Mbatha-Raw does so much with the material she is given. She is able to communicate her interior with looks and glances, her eyes sparkling with hope as she walks the stage, radiating joy and confidence, aware that she might not get the opportunity to wear the crown, but going for it anyway.

As a woman watching this, there was many a moment where I gasped at the treatment of women, the objectification of our bodies (the swimwear portion was especially affecting), the way men abused their positions of power (Greg Kinnear’s portrayal of Bob Hope was especially good and also equally mortifying). It left me grateful that some women misbehaved so that I could live my life on my own terms, but aware that the work is far from over.

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Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour
Misbehaviour is often more tame than adventurous with its narrative, but it is thoughtful in its handling of women's narratives, and is able to shine with just enough fervour due to its talented cast.