Misbehaviour has its charming, even moving moments, and gets better as it goes along, but clunky characters, an overwrought message and a plot that tries to juggle too much make it an uneven and ultimately forgettable film.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (PBS’ “Call the Midwife”) and based on true events that took place in 1970, when a group of women committed to the feminist cause disrupted the Miss World beauty competition, the movie benefits from gorgeous set design and period costumes. Yet despite the interesting story and the revolutionary real women behind it, Misbehavior can’t quite bring it all together.
We meet one of these women, Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), just before she’s interviewed as an applicant to study history at Ruskin College. The overtly sexist, all-male faculty interviewing her are smitten — until her revelation that she’s both a divorcee and a single mother, after which she spends most of the interview trying to convince them that she’d be a serious, mature student.
Sally comes into her own after connecting with a group of anarcho-feminists, headed by charismatic, working-class Jo Robinson (the always-magnetic Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), who convinces her to loosen up a bit and make some posters to fight the patriarchy. Unfortunately, most of Sally’s character development and the evolution of her friendship with Jo is truncated, and when major moments do occur, they’re cheapened by Dickon Hinchliffe’s intrusive cloying musical score.
Intercut with Sally’s personal journey is a second — and far more compelling — plot line involving the female contestants of the Miss World pageant as they arrive for the competition. We’re introduced to the indifferent “crowd favorite” Miss Sweden, Maj Johanssn (Clara Rosager); the luminous Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Motherless Brooklyn); and Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison, Netflix’s “Black Mirror”), who seems timid and naive at first but is acutely aware of the discrimination she and Miss Grenada face as Black contestants.
There’s a white Miss South Africa contestant too, by the way, and the inclusion of both is a way for the pageant’s organizers, Julia and Eric Morley (fabulously played by Keeley Hawes and Rhys Ifans) — who are blind to the harm the competition causes to women but also trying, somewhat genuinely, to modernize it — to stick a media-friendly Band-Aid on the horrors of apartheid.
If that weren’t enough to juggle, we also meet the womanizing Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, at his smarmiest) and his long-suffering wife, Dolores (played low-key but effectively by Phantom Thread’s Leslie Manville), as he prepares to judge the competition. The movie has little time to do anything but caricature him, which easily, and somewhat lazily, sets him up to receive the ire of other characters and viewers alike.
The film does its best work when the nuances of the story are given proper attention. It deftly handles small details, like Sally’s mother’s internalization of harmful beauty standards, which she’s unwittingly passing on to her granddaughter. And the final 15 minutes — in which Sally confronts how her privilege has blinded her to the pageant’s life-changing potential for certain contestants — packs a major punch. But overall, it’s too much to fit into its 106-minute run time, suggesting it might have worked much better as a miniseries.
Available to rent starting Sept. 25 via Amazon Video, iTunes and other streaming services