This is a film that I’ve been intrigued about for a while. Last year, when I was in London for a weekend with my dad, I saw a scene of this be filmed and researching the events being depicted I was fascinated. This felt like a film that was right up my alley and the cast that was assembled got my attention even more. So I went to see the film, which may be one of the last big new releases I get to see for a while due to coronavirus, and this is a great film.
The film focuses on the 1970 Miss World competition and the controversy surrounding it, with a large focus on the Women’s Liberation Movement protests at the event, giving attention to Sally Alexander and Jo Robinson. There’s also attention given to the anti-apartheid protests resulting from there initially being only a white contender from South Africa, resulting in a black woman, Pearl Jansen, being chosen to also represent South Africa as Miss Africa South, the first black winner of Miss World, Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten, and Bob Hope being chosen as the special guest. Now there is a lot of plot in the film, so much that I kind of wish that there was a mini-series about the events of the 1970 Miss World. As such, there are some elements that don’t get enough time, such as the behind the scenes of Miss World and how it was organised and the way most of the other women reacted to the competition. What I think works about the film though is the balance over the depiction of the Miss World tournament. Whilst the film does critique the contest and the systems in place that place value on women solely for how they look, it does not do this at the expense of those competing in the competition. A weaker film would have demonised the whole system, including the women who take part. Here, we get a more nuanced look showing that, for the women competing, there is more complexity in how they view the competition and how important they think it can be to the way women are seen in the world. These elements of nuance give the film a greater degree of weight, helping to enhance the overall quality of the film.
The performances meanwhile add to the quality of the film. Keira Knightley continues her great streak of work as Sally Alexander, showing her own anger at the system and the conflict in her mind over whether what she is doing will make any difference in the way women are represented, through her history studies. Jessie Buckley is great in a more active role, showing the mindset of someone going for direct action rather than the more subdued actions Sally Alexander initially wants, with the chemistry between Knightley and Buckley selling the growing relationship between the two, showing how their ideas rub off on each other. Gugu Mbatha-Raw steals the film whenever she’s on screen, showing the mindset of Jennifer Hosten in both the way she feels about the Miss World competition as a whole, the way the media treats the black competitors and her relationship with the other contestants. A lot of the power and nuance in the film comes through her performance and it adds to the overall power of the film. There are some good comedic performances from Rhys Ifans and Miles Jupp, showing the horrific elements of the Miss World competition and the chauvinism involved effectively, with Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope being the full apex of this element, with Kinnear bringing across the stage presence and charisma of Hope effectively, but not letting him get away with his treatment of women. There is also good work from Loreece Harrison, showing the fears of Pearl Jansen and her treatment under apartheid, Phyllis Logan, Suki Waterhouse and Clara Rosager, whilst I felt that Lesley Manville, Keeley Hawes and Alexa Davis, whilst doing great work with the material they had, were slightly underutilised, especially Manville who gets a standout sequence near the end of the film, but could have had more screen time.
The filmmaking present meanwhile is solid throughout. The details used to recreate London in 1970 is excellent, capturing the fashion and the feel of the time well, and there is a good contrast made between the Women’s Liberation activists and the Miss World competitors through the costume design. The direction of the Miss World competition meanwhile is well handled, never feeling exploitative, unlike the real footage of Miss World competitions, and knowing the right way to frame each section. Notably, the scene where the competitors have to turn around is treated as the disgusting spectacle it was, the music and framing of this scene showing just how degrading it was and how it was the epitome of the way the system values women on bodies alone.
Overall, Misbehaviour is a timely, nuanced film that does a great job at showing all the different aspects of politics and the world that went on with the 1970 Miss World competition. Whilst I think some elements and cast members could have been given more screen time, and I think a great mini series could be made from the material, this is still a powerful film that is definitely needed right now.
My Rating: 4/5