On Friday March 13 this year, Misbehaviour was released nationwide. On Tuesday 17, cinemas across the nation were forced to close their doors because of the Coronavirus outbreak forcing the premature withdrawing of the film. But thanks to the wonders of modern technology, this film is now available to rent on digital platforms, though whether it will see a re-release may be a bridge too far.
Set in 1970 and based on real events, the film focuses primarily on Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) a divorced mother eager to stand up for her gender and pursue an academic career in a male dominated industry rather than going down the path that the culture embedded previous generations. By chance, she becomes acquainted with Jo Ann Robinson (Jessie Buckley) whose militant style inspire Sally to join her radical feminist group that would become the Women’s Liberation Movement, hence becoming the poster girl for their campaign.
At the same time, the organizers (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes) are preparing for the contests due to be held in London with the popular comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) courted to present. The event finds itself in controversy early on with two candidates, one white one black, selected to represent apartheid-era South Africa, the political side juxtaposed with the contenders becoming accustomed including the arrogant Miss Sweden, Miss UK and notably Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Soon these paths collide when in an effort to make their movement heard, a plan is devised for the activists to hijack the actual ceremony, in spite of the reputational risks that Sally faces in doing so.
Part of the film’s success is the ability to present an environment when everyday sexism was rife and leaving the viewer not so much with surprise but more relief that today’s society, though imperfect and still learning lessons from the MeToo movement, has at least improved.
Look at the scene early on when Sally attends an interview to be accepted for her diploma, judged immediately on looks by the entirely male panel as they discreetly rate her marks out of ten and even query about her private life, aspects that could be career-threatening in today’s world. No holds are barred as the director shows just how difficult life was for women to be taken seriously and break away from the idea that society’s achievements were developed for men to solve, a testament to the strength of Knightley’s character alongside other women depicted.
By presenting two sides, the film is good at arguing for both views of the Miss World contest by showing not just its detractors but also showing the perspectives of the contestants who use the platform as a way of improving themselves. The filmmakers are careful to observe that there are both positives and negatives about the contest, and even as we side with the feminists, there are points on their opposition that ought to be looked at before judging the whole thing on a negative entirety.
The film’s main intent is to be reactionary and it achieves that with flying colours, allowing us to see things that would be considered outdated today such as the ways in which the models chosen for the UK are spoken of for their assets and treated like objects. One could argue what else could be expected from a beauty contest but it also provides us with an open-mouthed response as to how judgmental these things were in the day.
Involving Hope is also a brave move given the unsympathetic light he is placed under in spite of his status as an icon in comedy. Kinnear portrays him as a philandering comedian whose long-suffering wife (Lesley Manville) remains faithful to him despite knowing his affairs, whilst his stage antics are scrutinised in a manner which details how comedy commonplace then appears career-defining in today’s Twitter-police era.
The success is also largely down to the ensemble cast, a who’s who of established talent from Knightley and Mbatha-Raw to Ifans and Hawes. The person who comes out best from this is Buckley who as the activist with a touch of devil-may-care reminds us this was the same woman who did such a stellar job in Beast and Wild Rose and could be on her way to becoming high on the list of the world’s greatest actresses.
It’s not so much a damning indictment on the people but more on the culture that supposedly endorsed what we see and there is no sense of patronising which is what elevates Misbehaviour as a quintessential British comedy that is both a lesson in history and in manners. It may go down as one of the unluckiest films, if not the most, of its time because of what its release coincided with but if one finds it on digital or DVD, Netflix or even a comfy slot on a terrestrial channel, its worth one’s time.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***