Review: ‘Misbehavior’

Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, and Greg Kinnear star in a modern historical drama, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. 

Timely in its relevance to the current cultural moment, yet also traditional in its narrative structure, Misbehaviour peers back some 50 years at a key event in the women’s liberation movement, when protestors disrupted the Miss World beauty contest in London, England. 

Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe (Swallows and Amazons, 2016), the film is based on true events and an original story by Rebecca Frayn (Luc Besson’s biographical drama The Lady, 2011), who also wrote the screenplay with Gaby Chiappe (Their Finest, 2016). The formula for modern historical dramas, whether intended for the large or small screen,  is quite well established by now: introduce sympathetic protagonist(s) and antagonistic figure(s), show how they are affected by major event(s), and demonstrate what effect they have upon the aforementioned major event(s). Roll credits. 

Sticking to that structure, Misbehaviour introduces the likable Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), a woman defined in the eyes of men by her status as a single woman with a young daughter; the spiky Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), rebellious in nature and fiercely independent; the dignified Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), constantly keeping her emotions in check; the officious Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), creator and protector of the Miss World pageant; the dutiful Dolores Hope (Lesley Manville), long-suffering yet loyal; and the legendary comic Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), desperately endeavoring to keep his career spinning past its ‘sell-by’ date. 

Sally’s scholastic days with blindly sexist fellow students and professors at a respected college and her domestic life with her live-in boyfriend, daughter, and very British, very traditional mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), is contrasted with Bob and Dolores Hope’s collapsed marital relationship, while Jennifer Hosten navigates carefully through the sexist world of the beauty pageant, which is also bound by racist attitudes and actions. Everyone is bound by the mores of the day; to what extent are they able — and willing — to protest or fight back for what they know is right? 

It’s all about degrees of capitulation, I suppose. In 2020, the actions taken some 50 years ago may seem relatively minor by modern standards, but Misbehaviour argues that’s not the case. The protests of that time eventually led to some much-needed changes in social and political thinking and activities, though a disturbingly large number of the justifiable complaints of unfair treatment have continued unabated. 

What effects can protesting a beauty pageant have? The answers are still rippling through time to our day. 

The film opens in select theaters nationwide and on VOD everywhere on September 25, via Shout! Studios.