18 June 2024

Film Review – Misbehaviour (2020)

In the 60s, beauty pageants were big business, attracting huge TV audiences. But the Miss World contest of 1970 marked a watershed, thanks to a demonstration by Women’s Liberation activists which took the live show temporarily off air, and its choice of winner – its first woman of colour.

It’s hard to believe now that beauty contests were served up as entertainment and, for anybody born from the 70s onwards, watching Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour will be an eye opener, if not a jaw-dropper. The film shines a light on the activists who defied the boos from the audience and the disapproving legal system by making their voices – forcefully – heard, as well as the behind the scenes shenanigans that went into the selection of the contestants. And there was the political pressure that forced South Africa to send two contestants: the white Miss South Africa and Miss Africa South, representing the indigenous population and the, eventual the runner-up. The winner on the night was Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha Raw). The third piece of the narrative jigsaw focuses on the show’s celebrity host, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), and how the reality of his life was far from his carefully cultivated image.

Kinnear has the trademark nose (courtesy of a prosthetic) but, for the most part, looks more like Harry Enfield. The veteran comic had history with the contest: after hosting one in the 60s, he took a shine to the British winner, installed her as his personal assistant and had an affair with her. It’s constantly alluded to by his wife Dolores (a gloriously tungsten tipped Lesley Manville) but the real fascination lies with watching a character miles away from the more familiar cheeky, quick witted charmer. He’s decidedly sleazy, to the point of repulsive, prompting the thought that his is the real story of the film, but one that’s left untold.

Instead what we’re given is something close to Suffragette-lite. The female activists are led by the headstrong and single minded Jo (Jessie Buckley, sparkling as usual) and they’re joined by her complete opposite, mature student Sally (Keira Knightley), who has a partner and a daughter at home plus a mother who simply can’t understand why her daughter is so unhappy with the way women are treated. At the same time, we also see the preparations for the contest final, under the leadership of a cartoonish Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and their stories run in parallel, along with Hope’s, with all roads leading to London and the demonstration. But, despite those components, it’s questionable if the story is strong enough to sustain a running time of just over 90 minutes. The bulk of the film concentrates on the run-up to the demonstration and the overall feeling is of an hour long TV drama stretched to make a feature film.

On the plus side, there’s some strong performances, with Knightley, Buckley and Mbatha Raw all on good form. There’s also a nice turn from Phyllis Logan as Sally’s traditionally minded mum and, of course, the brilliant Manville. Kinnear is fascinating as Hope, simply because he upturns that established image, while Ifans simply overacts as Eric Morley. It adds up to a film that waves the flag for equality and does it with pride but not enough punch, burdened by an over-padded narrative. That the events helped further the cause of women and equality in general isn’t open to question. Their cinematic portrayal is.

★★ 1/2

Drama, Comedy, History | Cert: 12A | Pathe | UK, 13 March 2020 | Dir. Philippa Lowthorpe | Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lesley Manville, Greg Kinnear, Rhys Ifans.

Watch our interviews with Misbehaviour star Gugu Mbatha Raw and director Philippa Lowthorpe here

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