Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Starring: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley
Running Time: 1h 46mins
It was 1976 when Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote that “well behaved women rarely make history”. Philippa Lowthorpe proves this with Misbehaviour, based on the boycott of the 1970 Miss World competition by the Women’s Liberation Front in London.
Misbehaviour stars Kiera Knightly as Sally Alexander, a young, divorced mother who believes that the way to destroy the patriarchy is by earning her “seat at the table” and proving that she is just as intelligent and capable as male students. All of the women in Misbehaviour’s main cast are interesting and complex and their contribution to the Women’s Liberation Front was portrayed as equal. However, as the film goes on, it becomes clear why the focus is on Alexander: although she is a divorced mother who is living with her boyfriend despite them not being married, which is certainly an atypical situation by 1970’s standard (this is exhibited during her interview for King’s College London – the all-male interviewing panel are visibly shocked after asking where her child will go while she studies, to which she replies the man she lives with will take care of her), she also exudes privilege. It is very clear upon her first encounter with members of the Women’s Liberation Front that she does not consider herself to be the ‘same’ as them; they are loud, brash and have no respect for authority (particularly if the commands are coming from a man). She is interested in issues regarding women’s liberation, so long as they do not cause her any trouble or put her in any compromising positions.
The film’s greatest triumph is how it shows that, even in an industry whose only purpose is to find the perfect woman, there is no such thing (or a perfect feminist). While at first Sally is self-centred and does not want to step out of her comfort zone, the Women’s Liberation Front are also too radical in their views – which ultimately hinders the spreading of their message. Out of such conflicting beliefs rises a sense of solidarity, as all of the women in the film come to understand that they have something to learn from each other. Lowthorpe reminds us as an audience of our own privileges by illustrating the plight of women from countries that are more oppressive for women than 1970’s England. The 1970 Miss World competition was the first to have a black woman represent South Africa, a country that at the time was still under the apartheid regime. It was also the first time the competition allowed a representative from Grenada.
Alongside the blossoming bond between Sally and the Women’s Liberation Front, we also see a friendship form between Pearl Jansen and Jennifer Hosten: Miss Africa South and Miss Grenada Jansen (Loreece Harrison) is the first black woman to represent South Africa but is still only permitted to do this as ‘Africa South’, alongside a white competitor to represent South Africa. For Jansen and Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss World is more than a beauty competition designed to uphold dated stereotypes about women and feed the male gaze, but a declaration to the world that they will not be overlooked any longer. While it is easy to get caught up in supporting the boycott of the Miss World competition, particularly thanks to the misogynistic womaniser and host of the competition Bob Hope, we are also reminded that there are some women who feel empowered by the Miss World competition. For some of the contestants, the competition is a means to acquiring their own agency; Marjorie Johansson/Miss Sweden (played by Clara Rosager)’s intention if she won the prize money is to invest it in an education.
However, while the film does contain moments that will warm your heart and inspire you, it ultimately falls flat. Though all the right messages are conveyed, Misbehaviour feels somewhat forgettable. The film attempts to encompass feminism in all its forms, which is a big challenge. The script at times is superficial; in one scene between Sally and her mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), Sally is trying to explain to her old-fashioned mother that she is so involved in the Women’s Liberation Front because she doesn’t want her life choices to be dictated by men (like her mother, who couldn’t even open a bank account without her husband’s approval), the scene lacked conviction. The film best highlights the sexism that perforated 1970s society in its subtle moments; Sally being talked over by her male counterparts in a university seminar, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) referring to “the world and his wife”.
Misbehaviour is not a film that is going to make waves in the feminist movement, but it doesn’t need to. The film is an uplifting reminder of how much progress has been made in the fight for women’s rights in the 50 years since the boycott, and is a fitting tribute to the women who put themselves at risk so that women in Britain can enjoy the agency that they have today.
Editor's Note: This film was screened at City Screen York