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Peter W Sheehan  |  12 November 2020

MISBEHAVIOUR. Starring: Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keeley Hawes, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, Greg Kinnear, and Tashi Bullman.  Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. Rated M (Coarse language). 107 min

This comedy-drama is inspired by real-life events and tells the story of a group of women, who disrupted the Miss World beauty competition at the Princess Theatre in London in 1970. The competition was hosted by American comedian, Bob Hope. Before 1970, the Miss World competition regularly attracted a huge television audience for what it was originally planned to be – organised pageantry, dedicated to the competitive display of young women, childless and unmarried, groomed to be highly attractive for public entertainment.

Beauty pageants have been said to weave together 'the forces of patriarchy, capitalism, and racism', and the film basically confirms that such is so. A group of Women’s Liberation activists, claiming that beauty pageants demean women, set out in 1970 to disrupt the Miss World pageant and they made front page news. The activists focused on the pageant’s master of ceremony, Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), for his sexist remarks about the competitors that he routinely offered for laughs – comments that were not tolerated by his wife (Lesley Manville). The film is a seemingly serious attempt to deal with complex racial and sexual attitudes, in a comic-dramatic way, and it fails. The woman who won the competition in 1970 was Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten – the first black woman to claim the Miss World crown. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Miss Grenada gives ambiguous meaning to winning, when she struggles with how best to compete in the same way as white, privileged contestants, who have learnt how to play the rules for projecting sexual allure.

The movie focuses on Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a middle-class history student at London University, who befriends another student, Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), who engages in outrageous forms of protest and is the ring-leader of the feminist group. Sally intellectually argues her case, while Jo looks for action that is visible and immediate. Together, they join forces to take a public stand at the competition, to make it clear that they oppose the fact that women are being judged, not for being people, but for being objects to admire. They argue that the personal attributes of the contestants themselves are being set aside as features that will be ignored. The night of the Award becomes chaotic as the activists do all they can to disrupt the pageant, and what they do causes a media sensation.

The movie is critical of the objectification of women, but enthusiastically celebrates the cultural diversity of the contestants who compete from 17 different countries –including Africa, India, Lebanon, Israel, Thailand, Grenada, and Australia (showing Tashi Bullman, as Australia’s Valli Kemp). The film doesn’t refer to the kind of sexual abuse that later characterised the 'MeToo' movement, but it points to the development of such abuse by highlighting relevant historical contexts. The movie blames those who glorify the ideals of Beauty Pageants designed to expose women to lascivious, male scrutiny, but suffers from subtle marketing of some of the same ideals.

This is a period drama of potential weight, but it pursues its narrative by skimming thinly over racism, sexism, and class differences. It only partially succeeds in negating the ideals of beauty pageants it would wish to argue ought not to be supported. On separate fronts, Keira Knightley competently satisfies the social-cognitive challenges of well-aimed protests, and the movie compellingly captures other issues – illustrated  by Miss World’s founder, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), and his wife, Emily (Keeley Hawes), doing what they can to stem the tide of events threatening to derail what has been well organised. Photos of real-life characters in the film’s closing credit sequence emphasise the authenticity of what has already been seen.

Consistent with its potential for enjoyable viewing, the film aims to please by playing loose with the values it says it rejects. At its core, it provides a strike at how 'not' to conduct a beauty pageant, but with heavy direction it entertains in ways it says it shouldn’t, and lines up embarrassingly on the opposite side of an unequivocal defence of women’s dignity.

Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media
Twentieth Century Fox
Released 26 November 2020



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