Contrary to some of the headlines coming out of Hollywood in the last few days, movies are still indeed being released in cinemas. Indeed, Misbehaviour is the kind of film that works perfectly for a time of uncertainty. It’s an entertaining, energetic yet thoughtful film, albeit one that takes hardly any risks and could have gone way further in its socio-political exploration. It’s a movie that wants to be two things, fluffy comfort watching perfect for a Sunday afternoon, while also functioning as a provocative piece of filmmaking.
Set in London 1970, Misbehaviour follows the events surrounding that year’s Miss World competition, an event that the movie makes great effort to communicate was one of the most-watched televised programmes. It’s an unconventional premise but arguably the film’s greatest strength is how it takes a two-pronged approach to tackling the politics surrounding the controversial competition: one focusing on the feminist protesters that opposed the event’s objectification of women and the other honing in on the first black winner of the event as well as the first black contestant from Apartheid ridden South Africa.
Immediately the story is made more prominent through pivoting the context through two politically charged lenses. I will say however that the intentions may have proven too ambitious for a film wanting to stay light and fluffy, as it heavily favours the story centring on the women’s movement over the more interesting (in my opinion) tale of the racial breakthroughs achieved by the then Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison). The way in which that story counters the lack of intersectionality of the aims of the women’s movement at the time is endlessly interesting and hints at the potential sophistication that the movie could have reached. Yet it is under-utilised. Mbatha-Raw’s character is surprisingly absent for much of the film and the only scene in which it fully confronts the intersectional issue comes towards the end in a conversation between herself and Keira Knightley’s Sally Alexander. I wish more of the film focused on the dynamic between the two stories rather than saving all of the thematic resonance for a few rushed scenes towards the conclusion.
For the rest of the runtime, screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe are clearly more concerned with the anti-Miss World activism from feminist activists led by Alexander. She is firmly the protagonist of the piece and her and allies most notably including Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) get the lion’s share of the screen time. This in itself is not a bad thing per se. Knightley and Buckley are both compelling in the roles, taking on polar opposite campaigners, one sensible and one anarchic, to show the multifaceted nature of feminist protest. Yet, it’s a shame that much of the rest of its exploration is a little by the numbers and painted with a broad-brush. There are too many knowing winks to the audience whenever Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear in a very hammy performance) would say something outrageously sexist, and the movie never grapples with the deeply interesting development of the women’s movement. This would have been even more interesting considering we are arguably entering a fourth wave of feminist discourse now that #MeToo has become part of the everyday lexicon. Since this film firmly roots itself in the second wave of the 1970s, it would have been interesting if the writers had attempted to pass comment on how far the movement has come, and paint feminism as an ever-changing movement. It may sound as if I’m becoming too political in my analysis, but the film definitely wants the audience to engage with the wider issues, but unfortunately fails to go far enough. As it stands, the film is remarkably safe and functional in its message, even though it was clear that an attempt was made to be something more important.
That safe filmmaking extends to directorial choices and other technical aspects. Philippa Lowthorpe, known for her television efforts, doesn’t do much to differentiate the film from that of a TV movie. The film is conventional in cinematography, music choices and while the period setting of the 1970s is achieved, that isn’t enough to make the film pop visually. I can see Misbehaviour coming onto the BBC every so often in the next few years, maybe as something to watch with the whole family around the Christmas period. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But this film definitely wanted to be something more, and its inability to fully grapple with the complex socio-political implications of the story as well as the dull visuals hamper the material from truly reaching the sophistication it was reaching for.
5.5/10: Misbehaviour is comfort filmmaking, functional and fun. But when considering the endlessly interesting possibilities of the source material and dual framing device of London through both gender and racial lenses, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.