“We’re not beautiful. We’re not ugly. We’re angry” – that was the rallying cry of feminist activists who disrupted the 1970 Miss World pageant in London, throwing flour bombs at the stage. It was an exciting event that made headlines round the world, and a moment in history that marked the changing times – in more ways than one. 1970 was also the first time that a black woman, Jennifer Hosten from Grenada, was crowned Miss World. These true events form the basis for Philippa Lowthorpe’s feature film Misbehaviour, which focuses on two of the women who were active in the protest: Jo Robinson and Sally Alexander. Misbehaviour stands out in its vibrant storytelling that deftly touches on the nuances of intersectionality, rampant sexism, and different perspectives within the feminist movement, in a lively film that is full of humor.
The film situates the pageant in history, opening with a brief glimpse of Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) entertaining troops in Vietnam, a discussion of the appropriate measurements for Miss World candidates (34, 24, 36 in case you are wondering), and Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) seeking admission to a graduate studies program. As she is questioned by an all-male panel who define her as a “mature student” (Alexander was 27 at the time), the viewer is instantly thrown back 50 years to a time when higher education was still very much a boy’s club.
Organizing a Women’s Conference at the University, Alexander soon encounters Jo (Jessie Buckley), a storm of creative energy who represents an alternative approach to feminism, spray painting over billboards and happy to create havoc. Their personalities and goals are dramatically different, as Jo accuses Sally: “You don’t want to bring down the male establishment, you just want a seat at the table.” Both actors are splendid in their respective roles, each portraying a powerful, courageous woman. The sparks between them are fun to follow, and ultimately, both are wise enough to realize that there is strength in unity.
At the same time, the film follows two other narrative threads: the process of organizing the upcoming pageant, and a glimpse into the life of Bob Hope, who was the host in 1970. Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are the producers of the pageant, eager to avoid mishaps and controversy. But there’s a world out there, and protesters against apartheid criticize the pageant for its inclusion of South Africa. The solution – easy! They decide that the country will be represented by two women: Miss South Africa (white) and Miss Africa South (black), Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison). As the women arrive in London, in their excitement is a fervent hope that the pageant will be the key to unlock a better future. The two groups of women – pageant contestants and feminist activists – have more in common than one might think. The film follows Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the contestant from Grenada, and it is through her perspective that other aspects of the pageant are revealed.
Greg Kinnear delivers a wonderful portrayal of a sexist, oblivious, Bob Hope, who is utterly discombobulated when the fury breaks out at the pageant. You kind of want to get up in your seat and cheer. The film takes a very light-hearted approach, and this suits the subject matter. After all, protesting a pageant is not quite the same as getting the right to vote, or breaking the glass ceiling. Misbehaviour is a feel-good feminist film, a reminder that change can happen, and perhaps even more important – a reminder that so much change for the better is the result of the efforts and struggles of so many feminists who came before us.
UK/2021/106 min/English with Hebrew subtitles
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe; Screenplay: Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiape; Cinematography: Zac Nicholson; Editing: Úna Ní Dhonghaíle; Cast: Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Loreece Harrison, Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes