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Updated: Aug 15, 2020





Misbehaviour works on many levels in this retro, feel-good movie about the rise of the women’s liberation movement in London 1970, when the annual Miss World beauty contest was sabotaged by young feminists. Sick of watching women being paraded for their looks like cattle at a market they staged a riot at the Royal Albert Hall London as the event, hosted by celebrity comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), was being watched live by a hundred million viewers worldwide.

Images left to right: Jessie Buckley (left); Keira Knightley (left); Gugu Mbatha-Raw

The actual event proved seminal, not only for second wave feminism but also for the anti-apartheid movement which succeeded in having a black South African contestant in the competition for the first time, Miss Africa South, (played by Loreece Harrison). What is more, the husband and wife team, Eric and Julia Morley, who organised the event arranged a multi-cultural panel of judges including the Prime Minister of Grenada. The consequences were positive for black women showcasing on the world stage, particularly Miss Grenada. Not only does Misbehaviour spotlight recent history, with many of the original activists and contestants still around, it also makes feminism fun. If you weren’t there, you’ll wish you had been.

Featuring Keira Knightley, as the bespectacled rising academic Sally Alexander and Jessie Buckley as Jo Robinson, her plain-speaking sassy support, this is an uplifting, rollicking film based on the women involved at the time. Initially at loggerheads over how to affect a feminist revolution, by opting in or out of society, they soon join forces. Knightley performs the rational, bemused academic and Buckely the wickedly irreverent protester to perfection. Both charge around London in a whirl whipping everyone into action, just about keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, longing to join in.

Rhys Ifans plays Eric Morley with the right dose of salesman chauvinism and Keeley Hawes plays his poised wife Julia in fine “keep calm and carry on” mode. Having set his sights on circumventing the anti-apartheid protest, Mr Morley takes his eye off the ball. His efforts backfire quite literally when the anarchists (a seventies thing) explode a bomb outside the Albert Hall. But most poignantly, Morley underestimates the “women libbers”. In line with the times, he dismisses the “bloody women” as killjoys, ruining “innocent, family entertainment” (they were called worse at the time). However, the examination of bottoms and breasts in swimsuits, obviously sexualised for the male gaze (salacious reporters and BBC presenters front row) says otherwise. When Sally sees her little daughter practicing pouts and poses in the lead up to the Miss World contest she is driven to act.

One of the most resounding sequences in the film is when the women enact their protest. The shell-shocked hosts shield themselves from flour bombs and water pistols, as cameras continue to roll for a captivated audience across the world tuning in to live television. The rousing, non-diegetic opera employed during this scene might be cliched (Verdi’s Requiem, Dies Irae), but it certainly works.

Misbehaviour doesn’t position the feminists against the beauty contestants. The feminists are clearly against the competition not the contestants, but at times it feels as if the filmmakers are shooting through a rosy lens. The contestants in Philippa Lowthorpe's Misbehaviour are portrayed as reluctant participants longing to be recognised for their brains. The case for working-class and black women in the beauty pageant is presented as a counterargument to mitigate the participating contestants who are actually intelligent, socially aware adults using their looks to break through. When the bookie’s favourite (Miss Sweden, played by Clara Rosager) is surpassed by an outsider (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Miss Grenada), suddenly being judged by looks is a triumph, accompanied by welling music and a party scene.

Some easy politics aside, Misbehaviour is a resounding movie and great fun, performed by an amazing cast line up. Stay for the credits. The protesters and contestants were very young in 1970 and there are some delightful surprises which cement the poignancy of second wave feminism and all it achieved for generations to come.

  • Fantastic Video An inspiring brief interview with the real women behind the Women’s Liberation Movement (formatted for Instagram & Facebook)




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