Well, I think it’s safe to say that the world we live in has been turned on its head in recent weeks. With what seems like a full lockdown incoming in the UK, my local cinema has shut its doors for the foreseeable future. That wasn’t before, however, I managed to slip in for one last time before the screen turned off and the shutters came down. With Misbehaviour looking like the last film I might see on the big screen for some time, I was hoping to go out on a high note.
Ultimately, it ends up being more of a middle note, but there is definitely a lot to like about it. Misbehaviour tells the story of the 1970 Miss World competition and the number of interesting and groundbreaking events that took place in and around it. On one side of the fence there is Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a mature history student who becomes involved in protests organised by the Women’s Liberation Movement, and on the other there is Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss Grenada vying to become the first ever black winner of the competition.
Both forms of social justice campaigning in their own ways, the film follows these women, one from the outside, one from the inside, weaving a narrative that successfully enough helps the audience to see that there are certainly two sides to every well spoken argument for and against. Sexism and misogyny is questioned across the plot, but importantly so is the matter of white privilege, and of taking the few opportunities women of colour might have had at the time to elevate themselves in the contemporary cultural landscape. As two separate plot threads, I would say that the two opposing sides of the coin work quite well, but one of the key problems that Misbehaviour has is a failure to really join the two together in a satisfying way.
From various protest prep to various pageant prep by the huge cast of great female characters, it feels very much like the film is building up to a big reckoning between the two view points, but what we get feels rather ‘tacked on’ in the climax. In many ways, it feels like the two distinct narrative themes, one being misogyny and the other being racism and white privilege, never quite find the time to interact and sit together in a meaningful way. There is one particular sequence towards the end of the picture where I think the filmmakers assumed this amalgamation would happen, but in the context of the fuller film it doesn’t really seem like enough. Once you have seen it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Despite the film not being able to transition quite so smoothly between its two binding themes, there is a lot of entertainment on show, and that is mostly thanks to the truly excellent cast of performers in central and supporting roles. Keira Knightley seems to excel in any role that puts her in a time period other than our own, and as Sally she effortlessly exudes that sort of 1970s early intellectual feminist attitude, an attitude that is wonderfully contrasted by the more militant activism and charisma of her friend Jo played by Jessie Buckley. Together those two actresses are the key figureheads for the Women’s Lib element of the film, and they are great.
It feels against the message of the film to say, but I need to stress just how irresistibly resplendent Gugu Mbatha-Raw is as Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten. The grace, serenity and knowing intelligence that both the character and actress possess is a captivating joy to watch, and Mbatha-Raw along with Loreece Harrison as Pearl Jansen (the first black Miss South Africa) provide a necessary and thought provoking contrast for the audience, helping us to see how the pageant, as strikingly ‘cattle market’ as it might be, was one of the very few avenues for a minority to be given a platform.
Overall, Misbehaviour falls in very neatly with dozens of other British comedy dramas of its like, not quite the top tier, but still far from being anything close to bad. Given the subject matter and themes involved, it perhaps doesn’t have quite as much bite as I would have personally wanted, but a handful of really great performances along with that quintessentially ‘comfortable’ British quality make it a solid enough watch.
As for the immediate future of this blog, I’ll try to catch new releases on home cinema as and when I can, but the main thing is that we all stay safe and be sensible. Hunker down, build up that Netflix queue, and enjoy doing your part to prevent this shitty virus from spreading to those more vulnerable than ourselves. See you soon!