A protest at the 1970 Miss World competition in London, which involved around 60 demonstrators heckling host Bob Hope and showering the stage with debris, is the subject of Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, which takes us behind the scenes at the competition and into the early Women’s Liberation movement. It’s a pity it does it so sluggishly and unimaginatively.
Screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe aim for girl-power haute cuisine with a dash of intersectionality. What they achieve is more like a Tesco’s meal deal, a lazy and jumbled script which fails to satisfy, educate or entertain. Characters spout clichés with the kind of abandon associated more with politics than film (“It’s time for us to realise the ways we’ve been conditioned”). Exposition isn’t even disguised as conversation. “We need a movement. A Women’s Liberation Movement!” says a woman at a meeting early on (she never appears again). Cue a standing ovation while, you guessed it, Respect by Aretha Franklin plays. Later, one Miss World contestant describes the cash prize to another in minute detail. Who cares? we silently wonder.
If the direction or acting had any merit, they might make up for the flatness of the script. But the cast of otherwise successful and talented actors (Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keeley Hawes, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear) is just as lacklustre here as the writing, hoping a couple of teary-eyed middle-distance stares each will be enough to see us through to empowerment. The accents are outrageous. Every shot is predictable. Perhaps worst of all, at each slow-motion moment of Emotion with a capital E, a truly irritating piano riff steps in to remind us to feel inspired.
In a stretch that is admirable for its ambition but unwieldy in its execution, the film attempts to cover not one, but two other controversies related to the 1970 competition – the decision to invite a black and a white contestant from South Africa instead of boycotting the country, for which the left-wing Angry Brigade planted a bomb under a BBC van shortly before the event, and the crowning of Grenada’s Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), the first black Miss World. This approach to the subject matter seems to have been pitched as daringly intersectional (we care about race as well as gender!), but comes across as both glib and sketchy, like a hasty tweet. In fact, the whole affair has the feeling of a social media campaign by a luxury skincare brand. It’s glossy, but the message is at once too obvious and totally lacking in conviction. It is unclear where the picture’s true focus lies – are we learning about the importance of racial inclusion in the feminist movement? (If so, why are all the protesters white?) Or is it about the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies? (If so, why does Knightley have to dress up for the climax?) Or, wait, I’ve got it – is it really about patting ourselves on the back yet again for our ability to monetise the struggle for women’s rights?
There was an interesting story to be had somewhere in the 1970 Miss World competition. Probably. But Lowthorpe has lost it in a mire of worthy pontification and an enormous cast. Its stubborn refusal to afford its characters any fragment of emotional depth or humanity is a big failing. Worse, its lame skim-read of serious issues is insulting to viewers’ intelligence. But on International Women’s Day, the day of its release, Misbehaviour might ultimately prove a force for unity between feminists and sexists. It is guaranteed to irritate, no matter your creed.
Misbehaviour is released nationwide on 8th March 2020.
Watch the trailer for Misbehaviour here: