A review by Manohla Dargis for The New York Times.
This British comedy about a feminist protest against the 1970 Miss World contest stars Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Miss Grenada.
The cheerfully one-dimensional “Misbehaviour” puts a smiley face on female rage. A comedy flecked with seriousness, it revisits a 1970 feminist protest against the Miss World pageant in London. Bright and insistently upbeat, the movie has period polish, some swinging detail and a sympathetic cast headed by Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessie Buckley. Like most commercial movies about feminist history, though, it also has a toothless vision of protest and empowerment that’s doomed to fail its subject because its makers don’t (can’t) risk making the audience uncomfortable.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the movie personalizes its story with a manageable handful of characters, including Sally Alexander (a fine Knightley), an academic. In short, bouncy scenes, she is shown as smart and ambitious, loved by her family but thwarted by her sexist colleagues, which leads her to join the nascent women’s liberation movement. Her ostensible opposite is Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), a.k.a. Miss Grenada, who arrives amid a sorority of giggling contestants. Jennifer isn’t given much to do or say, but Mbatha-Raw makes it clear that the character has an inner life, with faraway looks that you hope foretell that a more interesting movie is on the horizon.
The two women are ready-made for dialectical fun but are largely separated on parallel tracks. The movie — the script is by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe — establishes two opposing camps: one populated by the pageant people, the other by the feminists, including Buckley’s Jo Robinson, a live wire. While men linger in the background on Team Libbers, they take a prominent role on Team Pageant because the filmmakers seem to think the audience needs reminding that sexist men can be, well, sexist. So, rather than deep, revealing looks into the lives of the contestants, there’s a lot of the show’s host, Bob Hope (an affable Greg Kinnear with a fake schnoz).
Lowthorpe spends a wearying amount of time on the comedy of male buffoonery. The marquee clown is Hope, who’s introduced in the opening via parallel montage with Sally, and comes with his own aggrieved woman (Lesley Manville, adding bitter tang to Mrs. Hope). The most cartoonish buffoon, however, is Eric (Rhys Ifans), who with his wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), runs the contest. It’s mildly amusing to watch Ifans swan about in a pageant crown and cape when he shows the contestants how to walk onstage. The contenders tee-hee-hee and you might too, even if there’s nothing all that funny about how strenuously the movie tries to soft-pedal sexual exploitation.
The one time that the movie puts on its deeply serious face is when it addresses race, which it navigates with self-conscious awkwardness culminating in a clunkily handled showdown between Sally and Jennifer. Until then, the issue is largely taken up through Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the first Black South African contestant. Pearl has some heartfelt moments, like when she explains the circumstances of her participation to Jennifer. For her part, Jennifer barely says anything of note until she and Sally meet, an encounter that finds Jennifer delivering a few stinging words about race and representation, having been abruptly transformed into an avatar of feminism.
The scene between the women approaches weightiness by asking who gets to protest and why. But the two have scarcely met before the movie rushes off to its finish and the risible claim that “The Miss World protest succeeded in putting Women’s Liberation on the map.” Whose map? Who knows — but this would be news to the hundreds of women who in 1968 boycotted the Miss America pageant in New Jersey, a week after the Democratic National Convention exploded in Chicago. The activist Flo Kennedy saidthat Chicago was like throwing a brick through a police-station window but the pageant protest was akin “to peeing on an expensive rug at a polite cocktail party.”
“The Man,” Kennedy continued, “never expects the second kind of protest, and very often that’s the one that really gets him uptight.” She didn’t explain further, but presumably what gets him uptight is that while the brick comes hurtling in from the outside, the rug — and its despoilers — are already inside, one reason that feminism continues to make so many so nervous. It’s too bad “Misbehaviour” doesn’t explore that nervousness or do justice to the women who became a front-page scandal when they threw flour bombs at Bob Hope and whose slogan was “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry.” The scandal wasn’t the protest. The scandal was the anger.