“Misbehaviour,” which enjoyably recounts the true-life story of how 1970’s Miss World pageant helped put women’s liberation on the map, may be set 50 years ago, but its themes of sexism, racism, classism, misogyny and upending the patriarchy still feel undeniably, frustratingly relevant.
Director Philippa Lowthorpe keeps the many threads of the wry screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe (story by Frayn) moving apace even when the ambitious, often diffused narrative threatens to unravel. Good intentions, deft performances and vivid dollops of period style and sensibility go a long way to patch over the bumps.
The film charts several tracks on its journey to the night of the fraught beauty contest. The first is led by Keira Knightley as Sally, a forward-thinking single mother living with her boyfriend (John Heffernan) and more traditional mum (Phyllis Logan). She finds herself caught between a desire to have a voice at the male-dominated University College London, where she’s enrolled as a mature history student, and the realization that might makes right when she falls in with a scrappy band of women activists headed by the take-no-prisoners Jo (Jessie Buckley).
Then there are Miss World entrants Jennifer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl (Loreece Harrison), representing, respectively, Grenada and apartheid-era South Africa. The two women become fast cohorts, bonded by the knowledge that, as Black women, winning this hugely popular contest (it clocked more than 100-million TV viewers worldwide) could do wonders to help the cause of racial equality.
In addition, we follow the travails of anxious Miss World founder Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his increasingly enlightened wife, Emily (Keeley Hawes), as they prepare their contenders for the big show while managing the rising social and political tides threatening to derail the contest. We also spend much pointed time with event host Bob Hope (a game, if near-unrecognizable Greg Kinnear) and his longtime wife, Dolores (Lesley Manville, superb as always), who’s had it with the famous entertainer’s irrepressible roving eye.
It all comes crashing together the evening of the contest, which Sally, Jo and the other activists infiltrate to disrupt at the moment of maximum effect. It’s an effective sequence, one which also offers perhaps the most complete snapshot of just how sexist, leering and objectifying these kinds of pageants are (that announcer’s script!).
Photos and footage of the real-life Sally, Jo, Jennifer and Pearl close the film on a stirring and poignant note. They were definitely in a league of their own.