Sunday 11 September 2022

Movie Review: Misbehaviour (2020)

A women's liberation dramedy based on real events, Misbehaviour is the story of scrappy activists confronting the business of judging women by their body dimensions and looks.

In the lead-up to the 1970 Miss World contest in London, mature college student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is divorced and living with her partner Gareth and mother Evelyn. She befriends activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) and joins the fledgling women's liberation movement. Their group decides to protest and disrupt the Miss World pageant as an event that objectifies women.

Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes) are the husband-and-wife Miss World organizing team. To counter allegations of support for apartheid, they invite South Africa to send two contestants, one Black and one white. They also add Grenada's Prime Minister as a judge, placing Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the spotlight. The Morleys secure the services of Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as host; his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville) is less than thrilled, given Bob's penchant for womanizing.

The 1970 Miss World event turned into a flashpoint for allegations of sexism, racism, and corruption. In addition to the protests by the women's liberation movement, the pageant also featured the clumsy spectacle of multiple entrants from South Africa. Most famously - and ignored by this movie - the outcome was considered a scandalous fix.

In chasing after all the threads, Misbehavior is spiced with dry humour and never less than engaging. Director Philippa Lowthorpe juggles multiple perspectives, and the stellar production design recreates early 70's London and the glitzy Miss World stage, evoking a merger of the old, the new, and the soon to be ridiculed. The background context presents women as the primary audience of beauty pageants, with the chasm between Sally and her mum representing a generational fault line.

But with so much to chew on, it's understandable that writers Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn stumble. The narrative is spread too thin, with the wrong people getting too much attention. Four viewpoints compete for screen time: Sally and Jo's women's lib activities; Eric and Julia Morley organizing under a gathering storm; Bob and Dolores Hope navigating a cloud of passive aggressiveness; and Jennifer Hosten's backstage interactions with other contestants, notably Miss Africa South and frontrunner Miss Sweden.

Out of these stories, the grinding antagonism between the Hopes is out of place. Hollywood celebrities with wandering eyes is an old old and tired story, and here it just takes away from more important era-relevant events. Lawthorpe also spends unnecessary time with the Morleys and the organizers' buffoonish backstage antics. The performances are steady but confined to limited notes, with only Sally Alexander emerging from the clutter with a semblance of a backstory, while several of the other women are reduced to wallpaper. Misbehaviour captures a time and place, but with a wobbly coronation.

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