In 1970, a group of women protested the Miss World Beauty Pageant in London, going so far as throwing flour bombs at host Bob Hope on stage. The event is credited as being one of the jump-starters of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
This is the story told in the new movie MISBEHAVIOUR (2020), an enjoyable and informative film by director Philippa Lowthorpe, and starring Keira Knightley.
MISBEHAVIOR actually tells two stories, one about the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the other about racism, as seen through the eyes of two black contestants, one of whom is from South Africa, living under Apartheid, a system which the powers that be in 1970 refused to acknowledge.
Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is struggling to get ahead in life for the sole reason that she is a woman. It’s 1970, and she has a difficult time enrolling in college classes, is judged because she is unmarried and has a daughter, and even when she gets accepted into a college program her opinions are not heeded the same way as her male classmates.
Sally meets Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) who’s part of a women’s group which Sally views as rather extreme, but when she is continually frustrated by her college experiences, she decides to seek out Jo and join their group. Together, they set their sights on the 1970 Miss World Beauty Pageant, an event they see as the epitome of objectifying women.
Miss World coordinator Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) struggles to keep his pageant above the fray as he continually touts the notion that Miss World is first- rate family entertainment, even as his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) peppers him with tidbits that imply he’s behind the times. In fact, she gets one of the best lines in the film when she says she fears her husband will be forever stuck in the 1950s.
There are a lot of memorable lines in the movie. It’s a smart screenplay by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe. Chiappe also wrote the screenplay to THEIR FINEST (2016), an underrated comedy-drama about a World War II propaganda movie about Dunkirk. In MISBEHAVIOUR, some of the biting lines include comparing the beauty pageant to a cattle market, and in a conversation between Sally and her mother, her mom complains that there are lots of girls who enjoy Miss World, to which Sally replies that she’s not a girl, she’s a woman.
Meanwhile, while both Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl Jansen, Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison), are happy to be the first black contestants, they are also disheartened by the fact that no one seriously believes they can win.
And then there’s Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) who sees nothing wrong with his sexist jokes which he views as harmless fun, but when he’s pelted with flour bombs on stage, he’s left wondering, what is happening in the world, and what does it mean for his place in it?
MISBEHAVIOUR is an intelligent, well-written, well-directed movie that tells an important story, even more so in the here and now, where it seems that women’s rights are once again in jeopardy.
Director Philippa Lowthorpe has made an effective period piece, and she gets the look and feel of 1970 right. She also effortlessly goes back and forth between the women’s right story and the racial angle. Both points are successfully made in the film.
It’s an interesting cast. Keira Knightley is fine in the lead role as Sally Alexander and gets the most screen time. While she’s enjoyable throughout, it’s the supporting cast in this one that really makes its mark.
Jessie Buckley gives a quirky performance as Jo Robinson, and it’s easy to see why Sally would join forces with her. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Loreece Harrison both give sensitive performances as Jennifer Hosten and Pearl Jansen.
Rhys Ifans gives the liveliest performance in the film as the eccentric and determined Eric Morley whose mantra is the show will go on at all costs. Equally good is Keeley Hawes as his observant wife Julia.
Phyllis Logan is excellent as Sally’s mother Evelyn, who is constantly sparring with her daughter, trying to reign her in and get her to be a more traditional woman. And when Sally strikes back and laments that her mother wasn’t allowed to live her life, as she had to sacrifice it all to be there for her family, you can feel the pain emanating from Evelyn’s heart. The two share some of the best moments in the movie.
And in a smaller role, Lesley Manville is exceptional as Bob Hope’s long suffering yet patient wife Dolores. She also gets a great line near the end of the movie when Bob Hope is wondering what this all means for his career, and she wisely tells him that the world is changing, but his career will go on because people love him.
Greg Kinnear does a nice job as comedic icon Bob Hope. It’s not a full-on impersonation by any means, but the look and mannerisms are there to make Kinnear’s performance as Hope thoroughly convincing.
I really enjoyed MISBEHAVIOUR. What it has to say about women’s rights and racism is still so prevalent today. It’s sad, really, that these issues remain in jeopardy in the here and now fifty years after the events told in this movie.
If you want to know about one of the major events which energized the Women’s liberation movement, the protest at the 1970 Miss World Pageant in London, then you definitely want to check out MISBEHAVIOUR.
It’s one of my favorite movies of the year.