Misbehaviour review – likable comedy of bizarre and farcical 1970 Miss World

Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley star in this charming film as the feminist protesters who disrupted the beauty pageant

There’s a very British sort of wackiness to this bizarre and farcical true story from the annals of pop culture, told here with charm and fun. It’s the 1970 Miss World contest, which erupted in controversy and feminist protest, winding up with host Bob Hope covered in flour, the BBC covered in embarrassment and the fledgling women’s liberation movement covered in glory. If there is a tonal uncertainty in this comedy, then that’s because there was a tonal uncertainty in the real-life events, and the movie nicely conveys how they were at one and the same time deadly serious and Pythonically silly.

Misbehaviour official trailer

Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley play the two Women’s Liberation Front activists Sally Alexander and Jo Robinson who launched a protest from the audience; Greg Kinnear plays the American comedy legend Hope, whose sense of humour deserted him horribly on the night; and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada, whose dignity and self-belief remained intact. Misbehaviour conveys the unexpected fact that it was the Miss World pageant, for all its absurdity and tackiness, that gave a woman of colour a chance to shine.

This preposterous event was once a British brand-name success story, covered by the BBC and broadcast around the world, and founded by raffish London businessman Eric Morley and his wife Julia, who also invented the BBC’s stately TV show Come Dancing – since reinvented as Strictly Come Dancing. Miss World has been unironically rebranded as Beauty With a Purpose (which is perhaps just beefing up the traditional moment when the swimsuit-clad contestants are invited to air their hopes for world peace). It is separate from America’s Miss Universe pageant, owned from 1996 to 2015 by Donald Trump.

Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes are the egregious Eric and Julia Morley, who in the late 60s are presiding over an event that is always threatening to collapse under the weight of its own tackiness, reasonably evident even then. Kinnear’s Bob Hope is persuaded to host the show again, to the suppressed rage of his wife Dolores, played by Lesley Manville, who has not forgiven his indiscretion with a Miss World contestant some years previously. Meanwhile, Sally Alexander (played by Knightley) is a history student at London University, frowningly warned by a male academic that her planned dissertation on women’s role in the labour movement is a “bit niche”. And Jessie Buckley is Jo Robinson – the punchy direct-action enthusiast, keen on graffiti-ing ad hoardings and cranking out agitprop leaflets on Gestetner machines. Phyllis Logan has a nice role as Sally’s posh mum who resents being told that her generation were sellouts.

The objectification of women’s bodies is hardly a thing of the past, but this film brings us back to the bizarre way in which this contest turned it into a quasi-polite ritual, with rosettes on the hips and even – unbelievably – numbered discs on the wrists, a horrible touch that really did make it look like a cattle market. The 1970 event was disrupted by more than just flour. An Angry Brigade bomb the night before (quite unconnected with the feminist protest) raised the temperature, and there was also a question mark over the propriety of putting Grenada’s prime minister Eric Gairy on the judging panel – the film shows Hawes’s Julia Morley stitching up this arrangement over whiskies at the Commonwealth Club, apparently to get lucrative TV rights in Caribbean markets. But Mbatha-Raw’s warm, wry performance as the embattled Miss Grenada depicts someone who has risen above both the demeaning absurdities of beauty shows and all the rackety dealing that is happening behind her back.

Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope in Misbehaviour.
Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope in Misbehaviour. Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh

Misbehaviour is not a #MeToo film as such, or only indirectly – it does not allude to the kind of abuse that has been rife in beauty pageants, and the film shows the contestants in 1970 were primly assigned “chaperones” which, however ridiculous, might at least have militated against abuse. What it does show is the pioneering protest that was a cornerstone of the women’s liberation project and which was to help make #MeToo possible. The protesters maintain that they are not against the Miss World contestants themselves, and that is also the position of the film, which wants to show them sympathetically. Crucially, Bob Hope was in a pretty grumpy mood when he had to come back on stage after the protesters had been arrested: the film is keen not to make that mistake in the opposite direction. Director Philippa Lowthorpe and screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe keep it light and likable: the story of people who aren’t exactly keeping calm, but carrying on all the same.

  • Misbehaviour is released in the UK on 13 March.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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