Fifty years after the 1970 Miss World pageant erupted into chaos a new film documents the events that sent host Bob Hope scurrying from the stage, bombarded by flour bombs and heckles. “Misbehaviour,” a new British film starring Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and now on VOD, sees members of the nascent British women’s liberation movement rebel against the show’s objectification of its contestants and Hope’s terrible jokes. “I consider the feelings of women,” he says, “I consider feeling women all the time.”
Knightley is Sally Alexander, a single mother and academic who believes the women’s liberation movement must address systemic sexism if there is to be meaningful change. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) takes a more hands-on approach, defacing statues and sexist billboards. Despite differing approaches, they focus their efforts on the Miss World pageant, an annual event with a world-wide television audience of over 100 million people.
In a parallel story Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Jennifer Hosten, Grenada’s first competitor in Miss World. Intelligent, elegant and composed, she’s willing to endure the contest’s objectification for the chance to make history as the first woman of colour to win the pageant crown. “You are a very lucky person if you think this is being treated badly,” she tells Miss Sweden, Maj Johansson (Clara Rosager).
“Misbehaviour” is an ambitious movie disguised as a feel good Britcom. Issues are raised and the era is vividly portrayed trough fashion and the attitude of the pageant’s organizers, but the story’s main point, that feminism comes in many styles and can mean different things to different people, is broached in a superficially earnest way, but never explored. Alexander and Robinson see the absurdity of the beauty contest is liken to a “cattle market.” The farcicality of it all, the bathing suit competition, the numbers on the wrists, is not lost on Hosten but for her it is an opportunity to make a statement to other woman and girls who look like her that this, and anything else in life, is possible. That doors can be opened.
Knightley and Buckley are reliably good but it is Mbatha-Raw who brings the heart and soul to “Misbehaviour.” More than just a retelling of the flour-bombing of Bob Hope or a history lesson on the roots of the women’s liberation movement (at the end we actually meet the real-life counterparts of the film’s characters), it’s character study of Hosten. She may not be the focus of the story, that’s Alexander and Robinson, but Mbatha-Raw’s warmth tempered by inner unease makes her the movie’s most layered and interesting character.