November 1970. Several women in support of the Women’s Liberation Movement took part in a demonstration that interrupted the live broadcast of the Miss World competition at Albert Hall in London, England. The protestors threw flour bombs, used noise crackers, and otherwise disrupted the event which famed-comedian Bob Hope was hosting. The actions of the protesters would serve as the spark for other events, leading up to the wider and larger gatherings which would shape how the world viewed the Women’s Liberation movement. What’s particularly interesting about that year, and why the Phillippa Lowthorpe-directed film Misbehaviour resonates, is that the protest at the Miss World competition wasn’t the only moment of history to be made. As coincidence would have it, or perhaps fate, if you’re feeling dandy, is how the make up of the contests shifted that year and the inclusion of Bob Hope as a returning host would play unknowing roles in the future of women’s politics. Smartly balanced, the script from co-writers Rebecca Frayn (The Lady) and Gaby Chiappe (Their Finest), based on a story by Frayn, explores how unconnected events in 1970 collided to create an almost unbelievable true story.
In 1970, several things were happening at once, independent of each other. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) applied to the University College of London as a mature student seeking to earn an advanced degree, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) performed at U.S.O. shows in Vietnam while looking for ways to maintain his legacy, and married operators of the Miss World competition, Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes), sought ways to create positive press amid the changing views of feminism. Without their intention, the incremental choices they each made throughout the year would set the stage for one of the more infamous nights in television history.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Misbehaviour, then you’ve either been enticed by the cavalcade of incredible talent presented (Knightley, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose), Gug Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color), to name a few) or the comedic energetic energy it appears to emit. Truth is, only one of these are present in this adaption of the events leading up to the 1970 Miss World competition and that works largely in its favor. There are several moments of true humor within the story, but Misbehaviour is not remotely energetic, not in the pop quipy way the trailer indicates. This is likely to perturb some viewers whose expectations of something akin to 2009’s Pirate Radio, also based on a true story, are not met. However, those who can put those expectations aside are treated to a genuinely moving cinematic experience. Impressively, Frayn and Chiappe craft a script which is never dull nor too shallow as it navigates the three central groups around whom it revolves, creating moments to really explore and explain the significance of their actions in that era. It is spread a little too thin in order for audiences less familiar with specific concepts to truly appreciate the significance of the events on display, yet there’s enough meat on the narrative for it not to be lost entirely. For instance, two contests of the competition — one from South Africa (Pearl Jansen played by Loreece Harrison) and one from Grenada (Jennifer Hosten played by Mbatha-Raw) — discuss what it means to be in the competition. For Jennifer, it’s an opportunity to take her first step toward a career in broadcasting; whereas, for Pearl, she must adhere to specific behaviors and restrictions, win or lose, otherwise she might get in trouble with her country’s officials. It’s mentioned a few times in the film that South Africa is under apartheid, but it’s not something that’s explored in the slightest. For those in the know, there’s terrible tension within the subtext, like when America’s representative from Alabama purposefully shuns Pearl, but it’s not explored enough for it to have meaning to those outside the historical context.
While some aspects aren’t explored beyond the surface, Frayn and Chiappe wonderfully dig into the complexities of feminism and how there isn’t just one way to be a feminist. Its central cast includes mature student (Sally), former students (like Buckley’s Jo Robinson), the prior generation (via Phyllis Logan’s Evelyn Alexander), as well as four of the contests (Mbatha-Raw, Harrison, Suki Waterhouse’s Sandra Wolsfield of the U.S., and Clara Rosager’s Maj Johansson of Sweden). Through Sally, the audience is shown a more academic approach, wherein one changes the system from within, using the rules to get into a position to change them. Through Jo and her friends, the audience is shown something more disruptive, chaotic, and energized, a version of feminism which would rip down the patriarchy without thinking about what comes after. Evelyn comes to represent the prior generation’s thinking of feminism as nothing more than the demasculization of men and a disavowing of responsibility. Through the pageant, the audience is shown that partaking in a contest like Miss World doesn’t require sacrificing intelligence or aspirations and that those who compete aren’t without souls or identities. In fact, Frayn and Chiappe’s narrative implies that there is more in common between Sally’s journey and those of the contestants than either group might realize. Before feminism can truly take hold, we often need to remember that there’s more that binds us than divides us. If we can remember that, perhaps, then, the patriarchy can truly die out and a new global collective can step in.
More than anything, what Misbehaviour gets right is in (largely) following the truth of the story. Of late, there have been several “based on a true story” films which took artistic license to the point of creating something entirely new. It could be the removal of an actual person so that there could be more tension between the film’s leads (Military Wives) or creating a non-existent person in order to give the audience someone to follow (Fishermen’s Friends). Though the truth is shifted somewhat within Misbehaviour (a bomb which went off the night of the competition, not the day before; whether some of the characters within the story actually met in real life), there’s nothing so adjusted as to ruin the essence of the events. According to a recent interview with Alexander herself, where she’s portrayed as living in a more traditional apartment, she actually lived in a collective household similar to the one Jo is depicted living in. With this in mind, it becomes evident that the writers wanted to make the unlikely friendship of Sally and Jo more evident by creating polar differences, but it’s also clear from the dialogue that this makes little difference to the characters, only the audience. Once you’ve seen Misbehaviour, I do recommend checking out this recording of Bob Hope during the event and when the demonstration began. It’s truly impressive how well Kinnear nailed the comedian, Lowthorpe mimicked the directorial style of the era, and the production/costuming felt authentic.
One can’t help but wonder why a film featuring some of the best talent (new or established) in cinema is being released with so little fan-fare, even if the shifted release is related to COVID-19. It was originally released in the U.K. in March 2020 and the theatrical release in the U.S. was cut short entirely. Though it’s finally seeing a release with an option for VOD viewing, it’s a bit sad to think that it will go almost entirely unnoticed. Never dull or deceptive, Misbehaviour may not be the rollicking historical adventure the trailer implies, but it’s no less an engaging, entertaining tale, one which many would do well to remember now as audiences’ memories are frequently fickle, thinking that girl power was an invention of the 1990’s and that feminism is still new. Truth is, in its fourth wave, feminism is still as important as ever, within whatever form it takes. Equality for one should mean equality for all. At least, even in brief, Misbehaviour is a reminder of that.
In select theaters and on VOD September 25th, 2020.
Head to the Shout! Studios website for more information on Misbehaviour.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.