There’s a lot of plot happening in Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour. Based on the true story of the protest at the 1970 Miss World competition, screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe work to squeeze in as much as possible about the conflicting personalities in the burgeoning Women’s Liberation Movement, the people working behind the scenes of Miss World, and the desires of the contestants themselves, particularly the black women whose participation means something different than the white contestants. Trying to cover all these stories is an admirable goal, but Misbehaviour never quite cracks it so it jumps around in a haphazard manner trying to follow the basic chronology of events while losing sight of the character arcs and narrative momentum the story needs. There are some good points about intersectionality and how feminists shouldn’t be viewed as a monolith, but they’re hard to see amidst the ramshackle construction.
Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is a graduate student hoping to reform the patriarchy by having a seat at the table, but quickly finds her efforts stifled and suppressed by the men surrounding her. Her frustration puts her in the orbit of the more rebellious and outspoken Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), who’s part of the burgeoning Women’s Liberation Movement, which has a plan to disrupt the upcoming 1970 Miss World beauty pageant and protest the objectification of women. Meanwhile, the pageant has its own internal problems as they’re trying to land Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) for a return appearance and fending off protestors who see Miss World as supporting South African apartheid by only accepting a white representative. Then there are black contestants Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) and Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose hopes extend far beyond just winning a beauty pageant crown.
Each of these stories are worth telling, and I can sympathize with the plight of the filmmakers to try and make them cohere into a single narrative. If you only focus on the Sally Alexander story, you’ve excluded the importance of Jansen and Hosten’s stories, and vice-versa. It’s also an unfair metric to try and make a single movie encompass all the complexities and conflicts of the feminist movement. Any movement comprised of people trying to fight for the rights of a single group is bound to have conflicts because individuals disagree and don’t adhere to the same values even if they’re fighting towards the same goal. That’s tough to capture in a single narrative, and I applaud Misbehaviour for working to avoid any pat explanations that simplify the discourse of the time.
But where the film stumbles is in how it tries to get these stories to cohere into a single narrative. There are elements that the film just doesn’t need like what’s happening with Bob Hope. It’s nice to have him stand in as an avatar for the patriarchy, but the film is more effective when it shows the inherent misogyny of the status quo as these women are surrounded by white men who view feminism with contempt and disdain. Hope makes for an easy villain, but he’s also a distraction and a redundant one at that (not to mention that Kinnear’s performance, coupled with his bad makeup job, plays as cartoonish). Even time spent with the Miss World organizers doesn’t really help to provide much insight into the central struggle of figures like Alexander, Robinson, Jansen, and Hosten.
With the story stretched too thin, the film struggles to make the arguments it’s aiming for. I’m glad that the film works to make an argument about intersectionality and that Alexander’s struggle differs from someone like Hosten who is trying to show young Black girls that Black is beautiful, but the emphasis of that argument decreases when Alexander gets to be a character and Hosten is reduced to being a symbol. We see Alexander’s home life, her conflicts with her mother, learn about her past, and for Hosten, the talented Mbutha-Raw is reduced to giving pensive looks rather than sharing her own story.
The good intentions of Misbehaviour aren’t enough to make up for a film that lacks much of a narrative flow and never focuses on its strongest aspects. The Miss World 1970 competition was certainly a flashpoint for the feminist movement in England, but the film’s storytelling muddles the impact to where you’re left wondering exactly how and why beyond the media attention. Again, trying to capture the complexities of a social movement are exceedingly difficult in a format that prizes a Great Person of History framework, but Misbehaviour never figures out how to tie its disparate threads together into a powerful narrative.