Dir: Philippa Lowthorpe. Starring: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville, Greg Kinnear. 12A cert, 106 mins.
On 20 November 1970, chaos descended on the Royal Albert Hall. It was the annual Miss World competition. Host Bob Hope was on stage, cracking jokes about pretty girls in tiny swimsuits. Suddenly, a commotion erupted from the stalls. Activists from the women’s liberation movement had brought in rattles and flour bombs, demanding the end to what they saw as a perverse circus of female objectification.
Philippa Lowthorpe’s new film, Misbehaviour, chronicles the incident through the lens of two of the activists involved: Sally Alexander and Jo Robinson. As played by Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, they are two sides of the same feminist coin. Alexander, with her poker-straight hair and extensive sweater vest collection, is the right-on academic. A working mother with an Oxford degree, she approaches every debate as if it were a test of her entire worth as a person, but still finds herself talked over and dismissed by her fellow scholars and intellectuals.
Alexander wants to change the system from within, while Robinson wants to grab a sledgehammer and knock the whole thing down. With an emancipated shock of red hair, Robinson runs about town desecrating statues of old white men and graffitiing over sexist billboards ads. She accuses Alexander of having “no stomach for the fight” seconds after they first meet at a local chapter of the women’s liberation movement. Yet it’s only when they put their differences aside and pool their efforts that real change can occur.
In Lowthorpe’s hands, these women are celebrated as the kind of pop-culture feminist heroes whose words and faces fit neatly on to T-shirts and protest signs. Their partnership represents a harmonious, unified vision of female empowerment. Or, at least, it would if Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) didn’t sit so awkwardly on the sidelines of their narrative. Her story isn’t so easily condensed into catchy slogans and theatrical acts of rebellion.
She was Grenada’s first competitor in Miss World, with the film introducing her to us as she first steps off the bus in London. She’s there because her measurements are close to the ideal 36-34-36, her eyes are Bambi-wide, and her walk is graceful and unhurried. A win would make her the first black Miss World in history. It would let little girls who look just like her see themselves differently for the first time. It’s easy for Alexander and Robinson to denounce the competition as a “cattle market” because they, as two white women, already possess a level of validation and value in western society. They’re rejecting what they already have, while Hosten being is asked to turn her back on something that’s always been out of her grasp. And, while Knightley and Buckley both deliver strong performances – the actors have the same sharp, steely look of determination – it’s Mbatha-Raw who shines. Beneath that carapace of weak smiles and practised serenity there’s a hidden turmoil.
But Misbehaviour brushes up against these complex ideas without daring to confront them head-on. There’s barely enough attention given to her friendship with Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the first Miss Africa South – a separate title to Miss South Africa which, during the apartheid, was only awarded to white contestants. Screenwriters Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn are too distracted by the open goals of vintage sexism – say, when Hope (Greg Kinnear) chimes in with gags about how he does, in fact, consider the feelings of women. “I consider feeling women all the time,” he snorts. The victories of Misbehaviour undoubtedly deserve celebration, but the film’s failures are also a timely reminder that feminist filmmaking can only be effective when it’s truly intersectional.
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