Misbehaviour – Film Review

Little did we know how much our worlds would change when Misbehaviour opened in the middle of March. It ended up being the last new release that I watched in a cinema before all cinemas closed their doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the imposition of a lockdown. I was therefore very fortunate to have watched Misbehaviour during its opening weekend having missed its International Women’s Day preview from Reclaim the Frame.

Whilst we may not readily admit this, at some stage or another, most of us might have watched the Miss World contest at least once or twice. Indeed, Miss World appears to be the longest running beauty pageant and is the subject of Misbehaviour but were you also aware of a protest staged during the 1970 contest?

Based on a true story, Misbehaviour depicts the events leading up to such protest. With a stellar cast, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, the perspectives of all of the women involved are on display, from the women’s groups organising the protests to the women selected to represent their country within Miss World. However, it is not only within the televised world of a beauty pageant in which sexism is rife. Keira Knightley’s character, despite being an intellectual, finds that her voice is often overlooked whilst studying and when choosing to analyse women’s issues is frustratingly told to steer away from something so ‘niche’.

Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley and others in Misbehaviour
Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley and others in Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour chooses to focus on the politics of feminism with wide angle shots depicting Keira Knightley’s character Sally Alexander and Jessie Buckley as Jo Ann Robinson within their designated women’s group preparing to fight the patriarchy. There are deliberate camera motions to highlight a woman breastfeeding to underline feminism and it is certainly not subtle. Equally unsubtle are Jo’s attempts to emphasise the women’s movement and combatting misogyny by spray painting walls. The tone of the film within such moments is rather didactic but it would have been preferable for such scenes to have provided greater insights in addition to providing a window into Sally’s home life. However, Jessie Buckley delivers another captivating performance as the outspoken Jo and imbues the film with many of its humorous scenes.

Misbehaviour provides that obvious contrast between the forthright, boisterous members of the women’s protest groups and the seemingly serene beauty queens selected to appear within the Miss World contest through its use of close ups. Whereas there is emphasis at times on the feet, faces and hands of the protesting women the opposite is true of the beauty queens whereby the process of their objectification is unveiled. Again, there is not a subtle approach adopted as the scenes depict them effectively being processed like cattle with waist measurements and heights announced loudly. It is a symbol of an archaic practice which was not without a degree of self-awareness.

Jessie Buckley as Jo Ann Robinson in Misbehaviour
Jessie Buckley as Jo Ann Robinson in Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour, unfortunately, only lightly touches upon some of the other political issues apparent during such era. For instance, there is only a casual reference to the extreme measures that the black South African candidate may be subjected to, due to apartheid, compared to the white South African candidate, and the show’s organisers simply seek to be diverse to ensure the remaining popularity of Miss World and to wrong foot certain journalists. Keeley Hawes sports a Jackie Collins inspired hairstyle as Mrs Morley involved in the organisation of the Miss World contest and plays the role with relish.

Where Misbehaviour is lacking is in providing more insight into the back story of the beauty queens rather than simply emulating the level of objectification to which they were subjected, sometimes to cringeworthy effect on screen.

The camera angles employed reveal the winner of the contest from the outset. However, given that such moment was unprecedented the film should also have focused on those aspects which reflected the racial tension globally during such times. Some of the candidates would no doubt have experienced a degree of prejudice whilst attending the contest, but such moments seem to be glossed over in preference of highlighting the struggles against the patriarchy for certain women. Indeed, Misbehaviour could have addressed the inequalities faced by all women including those subjected to both racism and sexism. Such matters are subtly alluded to by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character, Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, who is portrayed very gracefully and dignified. Miss Grenada retorts that there were no ‘lightbulbs flashing at her’ and remarks to Sally that she wished that she ‘had her opportunities’.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten in Misbehaviour
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten in Misbehaviour

Despite tackling political elements, Misbehaviour, from double BAFTA winner Philippa Lowthorpe, is a fun film. Its colour palette is vibrant which conveys that air of positive change overall. Equally, given the beauty contest setting, having the female gaze direction ensures that such matters of sexism are portrayed sensitively and there is the fragmentation of the camera’s focus on the women’s bodies as a result.

Misbehaviour is an enjoyable watch overall despite its flaws and it is certainly unfortunate that the film was only available to view for a few days within cinemas. The impressive cast, including a witty performance from Lesley Manville as the long-suffering Mrs Hope, will certainly draw you in and the film is carried by such cast. It is also quite fascinating to see footage from the real-life events which served as inspiration for Misbehaviour.

Due to its limited cinema run, Misbehaviour will now be available to watch by digital download three months early.

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