The idea of Women’s Liberation up until the 1970s was something of an afterthought in a world that assumed people were fine with a status quo that kept women as homemakers, the dependable backbone of a world run by men. If it wasn’t for the events of the 1970 Miss World pageant, this might have continued for years to come. Women’s Lib, thanks to a band of unlikely ‘heroes’ became an international concern, a movement for lasting change around the world, thanks to an action that was both bold and colourful, the kind of salacious act that ends up in newspapers and discussed in every office over your morning tea or coffee. That is why it is so bizarre that the film paying tribute to it lacks any kind of fireworks or life outside of the film closing spectacle. It’s all so painfully beige.
Mainly focusing on the buildup to the pageant, zeroing in on the women both involved in the competition and standing on the outside looking in, most of Misbehaviour follows Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and her unlikely compatriots but the more interesting story lies within the competition itself, be it the internal politicking designed to make the event look inclusive without ever actually trying, or the opinions of the contestants much ignored assuming them to be unimportant and naive. Although civil disobedience is this film’s bread and butter, a rebellious voice to break through the social ignorance, it oddly enough proves to be the most disingenuous one.
While Sally and coconspirator Jo (Jessie Buckley) prove to be the loud voice, Misbehaviour proves that the quietest voice with the best argument might just be more important. While Buckley makes Jo a crass, deeply determined agitator, the fact that she doesn’t know what she is doing undermines a story that never feels comfortable in its own skin. Always moving from topic to topic, unclear on what the purpose of it all really is fits Jo’s character, even Sally’s but never the film itself. While Sally and co almost accidentally decide on making a spectacle of the pageant, director Phillipa Lowthorpe, along with writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, know this is where the story is headed but instead attempt to underplay events. While not expecting Ocean’s Eleven, a large section of Misbehaviour feels like an undercooked heist movie.
For a film about making a point and expanding peoples notions of what is expected of people, Lowthorpes film is narrow minded when outside the four walls of the pageant. Inside is a world of its own, one concerned not just with how women are perceived but also issues of race and to some extent the changing nature of marriage. Paradoxically the atmosphere inside seem to be far more progressive than that of the world Sally and Jo are populating. When these two worlds inevitably collide, it seems almost fruitless, both in terms of entertainment and the effects of Sally’s aparant altruism. While she plots, contestants like Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are playing the hearts and minds game, by changing the system, not bucking against it. Its a more compelling story and it feels almost secondary to what is perceived to be more exciting.
Only every little bit of narrative excitement comes from within the pagent itself. When we are drawn back to the grey and browns of London’s streets, forced to watch dry planning and poster designing, Misbehaviour loses momentum, proving that the how of the story is far less rewarding than the why. Despite trying to justify an act of rebellion it never treats it like the performance that it is with all the comedy that comes from organised pandemonium. While the men here are the punchline, with Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) making a good stand in for every misogynist ever, it feels as though by the end the real joke might just be Sally and co, the women unaware that they are taking part in a pageant of their own making. At least Hosten and other contestants like Marjorie, Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager) know they are the spectacle.
While a moment toward the end of the film attempts to bring these two warring narratives together as Jennifer and Sally meet, finally able to outline their wants, their expectations from their actions, it all feels like too little too late. A forced climax in a film that never takes the time to really think about what comes next.
While it doesn’t play into the sensationalised notion of pageantry it does so by diminishes the effects of a moment in history that deserves at least a little bit of excitement. Lacking the frivolity and freedom that comes from breaking the rules, from saying no to what is expected of you and in the end coming out the winner, in short, Misbehaviour for all its politics and plotting, isn’t very fun.