It’s 1970, a new decade has begun, we’re deep in the middle of the Vietnam War, and all eyes are supposedly on the city of London to make a statement no one would’ve expected. But apparently, that’s exactly what had to happen to ignite the Woman’s Liberation movement. Before Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman made it look cool, the true-life subject of Philippa Lowthorpe’s (Call the Midwife) Misbehavior had to start the flame that caused a revolution. Under the quietest of circumstances, and not without endless waves of controversy. Not having any idea of the historical significance behind, and just knowing the strength and confidence in play by such a delightful ensemble cast, this is a whirlwind ride eager to give the audience a double-take.
Set around the infamous Miss World pageant taking place that year, Misbehavior follows the bravery and radicalism of a core group of friends. The newcomer in this group is plucky Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), embarking on a “mature history” course in an upper-level college. Her objective: clear her head, break free from the antiquated feminist expectations of her aging mum (Phyllis Logan), hoping her kid can stick to the course of being a dedicated homemaker for her daughter and husband. No chance, she wants to change the world.
Right away, she discovers kindred spirits in an extra-curricular pro-feminism club, anchored by working-class rebel Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley). She’s literally like a powder keg waiting to explode, unwilling to settle for politeness. Instead, she wants to be loud, vocal, defiant. That’s where they stage their greatest public demonstration, a righteous swarm around the pageant, swimming in decorum and protocol. An event whose stock has clearly slid over the years, what even the fastidious organizer and his wife (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes) consider the world’s greatest “cattle show”. It’s the perfect storm for a fight to deconstruct a staunch, if not completely visible example of triumphant patriarchy. All while a clueless Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) looks on in shock, much like the millions watching, live.
What Misbehaviour does that similar British girl-power dramedies couldn’t (2003’s Calendar Girls has been weighing most on my mind as of late, to give an example) is analyze the situation from every angle. Writers Rebecca Frayn (The Lady) and Gaby Chiappe (Their Finest) make no difficult feat of treating the fiasco like a documentary, but with added dry wit. Perhaps how each storyline weaves around each other, it’s not without some hiccups. It’s not just Knightley’s story, even if we’re seeing one of her most focused performances in some time, one very cozy and down to earth. It’s also Buckley’s drive and momentum; between her work here, Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and Chernobyl, how could you say she is not on a roll? The pair are impossible to stop, constantly building off each other’s energy as opposites collide.
We get to the pageant itself, and it is like infiltration from the inside. Many of the participants possess valuable dramatic stakes, as Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and South African delegate Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) mull over just what the decorative sash and gown actually mean for them, and for their national pride as they deal with the homebound apartheid struggle. Miss Mbatha-Raw absolutely astonished me from start to finish. Give her space to breathe, a jumping-off point, and she‘ll go places. That same principle goes for Kinnear, who has never stopped his knack for burying himself in a character. Though with Hope, even with accurate prosthetics, he’s got the rhythm down, but not the candor. It’s not exactly a definitive portrayal, SCTV alum Dave Thomas might have him beat in that department. But for the sake of dramatic chops, he’s an effective ploy.
Where the film can feel confident in an electric cast that serves to tell the story right, its organization needs some work. But as far as being the best way to share this piece of world history from a woman’s perspective, the job is in fair hands. Charlotte Walter (Watchmen) only accentuates further with the period-appropriate attire, as does Sion Clarke and Cristina Casali with the overall design aesthetic, nailing down the fast-paced delirium of a city on the rise. All as Zac Nicholson (All is True) captures every shot with a steady hand, always staying one step ahead of where the action is bound to go.
All told, Misbehaviour is destined to play as a rather underappreciated dramedy, just waiting patiently to be uncovered. The audience dynamics for live competitions are a bit less magnetic in the states. That certainly explains why Eurovision isn’t a bigger deal here, which saddens me. Pageants are a different animal, especially now. What the real women dramatized here accomplished would change the game forever. “Miss America” certainly isn’t the same spectacle it was long ago, given how clear the male gaze and its influence on that entire industry has been shattered, easily for the better. Lowthorpe connects to that wavelength of empowerment, letting that be the compass through plenty of boisterous humor and seriously tender events. It was difficult not to be impressed, and a little inspired as Misbehaviour played out to its expected conclusion. Like any good time capsule, it’s gritty, whimsical, and untying from the truth. It does hurt looking back, so as our intersecting storylines prove, the fight never ends. Best to enjoy the journey. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up)
Misbehaviour is currently available via most digital retailers this weekend; film not rated, though it does contain some salty language and moments of pure anarchy; 106 minutes.