‘Misbehaviour’ Entertainingly Illuminates a Lively Moment in Feminist History

While the idea of protesting a beauty pageant may seem quaint in our current climate, once upon a time a group of second-wave feminists caught the attention of the whole planet when they protested live at the 1970 Miss World competition in London, an event dramatized in “Misbehaviour.” Keira Knightley portrays Sally Alexander, a mature university student and divorced mother who sets out to change the system from within. But after realizing that her seat at the table is just a “highchair,” she teams up with some of her more progressive feminist sisters, including activist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley).

Director Philippa Lowthorpe, working from a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn, provides different perspectives in “Misbehaviour,” including that of the contestants, focusing on two women of color, Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison). The latter is a last-minute addition to the roster, added by pageant founder Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) in order to shutdown those protesting South Africa’s participation in Miss World due to that country’s apartheid laws. The result is a film that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Reasoning that women and their quest for equal rights will never be taken seriously if they are objectified on the world’s stage –– pageants like Miss World brought in huge viewership numbers from around the globe in those days –– Sally and her associates devise a plan to invade the stage and make their voices heard during the live broadcast. 

“Misbehaviour” reunites Lowthorpe with “The Crown” producer Suzanne Mackie. She previously helmed two episodes of the series. The director revealed to Entertainment Voice that when Mackie gave her the screenplay, she was immediately drawn to this rich story of a chapter in feminist histroy that had previously been overlooked by other filmmakers. “This young group of women, full of energy and vitality, who decided to do this crazy thing in order to put women’s lib on the map. It’s such a mad idea, but at the same time, this extraordinary thing happened with a black woman winning and turning Western ideas of beauty on their head.”

According to Lowthorpe, the real-life Alexander, Hosten, Jansen and Robinson were all generous with their time, meeting with their onscreen counterparts to help make their portrayals as authentic as possible. “It really has been a female-centric experience, both in the research and behind the camera, and in front of the camera, because it’s all about women,” said the director, who used a mostly female crew in addition to the stellar cast.

Although the real Alexander and Hosten never met face to face until they were on a radio program together later on, a memorable scene in “Misbehaviour” is an imagined one that takes place after the pageant, one that involves Sally and Jennifer running into each other in the ladies’ room. The latter has an opportunity to eloquently critique the former’s actions and white feminism in general. Although she had to prance around in a swimsuit, Miss World gave Hosten, a Black woman from a developing country, a platform that she would not have had otherwise, one she used as a springboard into an eventual career as a diplomat.

“It seems to me like a really important conversation to have, a serious conversation which encapsulated the complexity of the points of view,” said Lowthorpe. “It was so important for me, and for all of us working on it, that we respected the people, the women who entered the beauty contest as much as we respected the young feminists who wanted to put women’s lib on the map… In 1970, there were so few opportunities for women that you had to take what chance you could, and do things for your life. For some, it meant entering a beauty contest. That still happens today. For some women, it’s a really good gateway to doing other things. We can’t be dismissive of that at all.”

If there is a villain in “Misbehaviour,” it is Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), of all people. The beloved British-born, American comedian hosted Miss World 1970, and Kinnear taps into his charm and charisma, and he and Lowthorpe don’t shy away from bringing to light some unsavory aspects of his personality, such as his philandering and penchant for chauvinist humor. Lesley Maville also brings a lot to what could have been a thankless role, that of Hope’s long-suffering wife, Dolores, adding another female POV into the mix.

So vile are some of Hope’s jokes during Miss World that Sally is compelled to give the signal to begin the protest much earlier than had been previously planned, launching flour bombs onto the stage. “I had no idea, although, I’m not surprised, because that was such a prevalent way of behaving for many, many men, not just Bob Hope, but many men of that era,” said Lowthorpe when asked about the dark side of the comedian.

Once the dust, or flour, in this case, settles, one is left with a valuable lesson about the importance of open communication between people, especially women. “Feminism doesn’t have one voice,” declared Lowthorpe. “It has many voices, and for us to listen to each of them, I think that is really, really important.”

Misbehaviour” releases Sept. 25 on VOD and in select cities.