Activism and intersectionality are at the heart of Philippa Lowthorpe’s fact-based dramedy Misbehaviour, which follows the tumultuous events surrounding the 1970 Miss World pageant in London and their impact on the women’s liberation movement. While always firmly on the side of the feminists who disrupted the event to protest its objectification of women, the film also makes sure to include other important perspectives on women’s roles and representations — which ultimately makes its message all the more effective.
At the heart of things is Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a fiercely feminist university student who’s determined to succeed in the male-dominated world of academia — and make sure her young daughter can be anything she wants to be. When Sally meets rebellious Jo (Jessie Buckley) and her crew of scrappy female activists, they start working together on spurring more women to speak up — and take action — against the patriarchy. They soon decide to target the upcoming Miss World event and its inevitable fawning over bathing-suit-clad beauties, helmed by notorious philanderer/misogynist joke-teller Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear).
Meanwhile, pageant hopefuls arrive from all over the globe, including Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Miss Africa South Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison). Both are keenly aware of their status as Black women in a contest that has always favored White contestants; Pearl, specifically, has been threatened with personal reprisal if she dares to criticize apartheid or anything else about her South Africa home. For them, Miss World offers the chance to break free of expectations and become positive aspirational examples for little girls who have far too few role models to look up to.
Misbehaviour also considers the perspective of the generation before Sally, Jo, Jennifer, and Pearl’s. Sally belittles her mother, Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), for having accepted the fate of living an unexciting life, but it’s clear just how unfair it is to say that to someone who has always been a loving, present mother and grandmother — and whose caretaking is a large part of what makes it possible for Sally to pursue her own dreams. Feminism takes many forms, and by acknowledging that one viewpoint doesn’t fit all, Lowthorpe and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn remind viewers that everyone who wants to make the world a better place deserves a seat at the table. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: Both a rousing history lesson and a hugely entertaining piece of cinema, Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour is a vibrant celebration of the power of collective action. That’s evident not just in the story of the grassroots feminist protests that threatened to derail the sickeningly sexist 1970 Miss World completion, but also in the assembled – predominantly female – cast and crew who have amassed to bring this incredible story to the screen. That starts with a sterling screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, which takes a measured approach to this astonishing true-life tale. They don’t give all their attention to protestors like anarchic activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley, fizzing in a firecracker role) and ambitious mother Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley, excellent), but take care to present the viewpoint of Miss World competitors like Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – aka Miss Granada – for whom the competition represents a real life changing opportunity.
Filmmaker Lowthorpe keeps a light touch, allowing the slowburn drama of the story to reveal itself and giving the moments of genuine humor and humanity the space to breathe.
Pam Grady: Conventional Sally (Keira Knightley) and firebrand Jo (Jessie Buckley) go together like chalk and cheese. Nevertheless, in this exuberant real-life drama, these opposites unite to support Britain’s nascent women’s liberation movement. Their target: the 1970 Miss World pageant. The contestants themselves feel the changing winds, particularly Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison), pioneering Black contestants in an overwhelmingly white competition. Director Philippa Lowthorpe moves seamlessly between these poles to portray women – feminists and beauty contestants, each in their own way –making moves for equality. Dickon Hinchcliffe’s score and Charlotte Walter’s costume design evoke an era when gender norms were taken for granted and budding women’s libbers were treated with derision. The ensemble cast is brilliant, with standout turns from Greg Kinnear as Miss World’s smarmy special guest, comedian Bob Hope, and Lesley Manville as his wittier wife Dolores. Not to be dismissed as a mere history lesson, Misbehaviour masterfully recreates an era that directly speaks to our own as we continue the work those women started.
Leslie Combemale At its core, Misbehaviour is a crowd pleaser, and that’s a good thing. All over the world, things have been especially tough on women lately. The film also has strong, inspiring messages, mostly based in the idea that ‘well-behaved women rarely make history’, and that it is essential to upend the status quo if it keeps members of society down. Read full review.
Loren King Taking factual, electrifying social/political historical events and turning them into engaging human dramas is something British filmmakers are particularly good at. Two obvious recent examples are Made in Dagenham about women workers who fought for equal pay at the Ford Motor company’s Dagenham factory; and Pride about the alliance between striking Welsh miners and London’s young LGBT community in 1984. Misbehaviour is a welcome and rousing feminist addition to this genre. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin British filmmaker Philipa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour is a rousing truth-based dramedy about the wonderful women who created an event that’s considered the birth of the women’s liberation movement — they disrupted the 1970 Miss World Pageant in London to protest the way the pageant presented women as sex objects. Keira Knightly stars as Sally Alexander, a feminist university student who teamed up with Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) and a group of young avidly feminist working class women who infiltrated the widely televised pageant and created their own attention-getting media event by displaying banners with smart slogans, throwing flour bombs and shooting pageant officials with water guns. Ironically that year’s pageant presented two Black women in competition — Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha Raw) from Genada and Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) from South Africa (yes, at the height of apartheid) who became the first Black Miss World. So. the herstory of this Misbehaviour has some engagingly complicated historical twists.
Kathia Woods Everyone is familiar with Ms. Universe, but there is another international beauty pageant called Ms. World. Ms. Behaviour Misbehavior centers around how that popular beauty contest was at the center of women’s liberation in 1970 England. The above is what the film’s themes were supposed to be; instead, we received good performances draped in 70’s style that disappointed the viewer. Many will think that the film centers on Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ms. Grenada but, it’s about Keira Knightly as Sally, a forward-thinking single mother. She meets a group of misfit activists at university. The film missed the mark. It had an opportunity to discuss race and feminism but instead chose to pass over in favor of white women angst. It always seems disturbing when you have great actors tackling a script that fails its talent. This film had the potential to say something but decided to keep the discussion one-sided.
I absolutely love this movie! It’s smart, funny, insightful, and perhaps most importantly, intersectional: It gets that feminism has often left behind some women, and that white women and women of color, and well-off women and poorer women, have often been at cross purposes when it comes to feminist activism. And it’s just brilliant in how it finds a bit of common ground among all of us. The patriarchy has yet to be smashed, as Misbehaviour notes — and it’s pretty appalling that, 50 years on from the events of this movie, not a lot seems to have improved — but maybe we’re starting to get a better handle on how we really do need to be in this fight together.
Susan Wloszczyna: The focus isn’t on nostalgia but feminist fury. There are two especially galling scenes that are staged for maximum effect. The first is when the contestants walk on stage in swimsuits while their measurements are duly noted, smiling all the while. But then the male announcer on stage says, “There are two sides to everything.” That’s the cue for the women show off their backsides to the crowd for what seems like an eternity. If it sounds demeaning, it is. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Misbehavior shines a light on a famous incident of direct-action by second-wave feminists at the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe from a screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, the movie stars Keira Knightley as Sally Alexander, a divorced mother struggling to juggle motherhood and graduate school, and Jessie Buckley as Jo Robinson, a young activist who lives in a commune. The unlikely pair and their fellow feminists join forces to protest the annual pageant in a year where anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam, and counterculture ideology clash with the mainstream, patriarchal view that an international beauty pageant is apolitical family entertainment. While not all of the issues introduced in the movie are thoroughly explored — like Bob Hope’s (Greg Kinnear) alleged infidelity, or what was really at stake for the Black contestant from apartheid-era South Africa or the judging controversy that ensued after a Black contestant won overall — it’s a well-performed, entertaining, and educational look at a moment that galvanized the feminist movement in the United Kingdom.
Nell Minow: Philipa Lowthorpe skillfully balances all of the different stories and themes, production designer Cristina Casali evocatively creates the earth-toned era of the early 1970’s and writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe bring a nuanced and empathetic approach to the story and the real-life characters.
Liz Whittemore Pitting the pageant world against women’s rights, Misbehaviour is a brilliant dichotomy of representation and exploitation. The film boasts a powerhouse cast and is filled to the brim with outstanding performances. Kiera Knightly turns her privilege into boldness. Perfectly matched up with Jesse Buckley’s audacity and spirit that flies off the screen. Gugu Mbatha-Raw leads the way with grace and determination in a beautiful and awe-inspiring performance. Lesley Manville, who also bears a striking resemblance to her character, Dolores Hope, is sassy and headstrong. She plays a delicate balance of outspoken and familiar inevitability of era gender roles. Greg Kinnear as Bobe Hope doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his own self-admiration. His misogyny is unmissable, to say the least. His dialogue represents everything women continue to fight against. The film is an engrossing snapshot of history. It was both the night the world was introduced to the Women’s Liberation movement and the subsequent crowning of the first black woman to win Miss World, shattering the white western standard of beauty. The writing is refreshing. These are fleshed out, flawed humans, learning from one another, making mistakes, and in most cases growing. The ending caught me off guard with its momentary 4th wall break, but therein lies its genius. I would not have had it any other way. Misbehaviour is inspiring and more relevant than ever.
Directors: Philippa Lowthorpe
Release Date: September 25, 2020
Running Time: 106 minutes
Screenwriter: Rebecca Frayn
Distribution Company: Shout Factory
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods
Edited by Jennifer Merin