Misbehaviour (2020), a Toothless Retelling of a Historic Moment

I wanted to love this film. I really did. Ever since the first trailer dropped, I was intrigued; the clearly pro-woman/feminist narrative intrigued me, and the topic of the controversial 1970 Miss World contest seemed like a perfect moment in recent history to explore through a modern-day lens. But unfortunately when it came to it, the film feels toothless, with little to say about the issues apart from a surface level: patriarchy bad, sexism bad, judging women based solely on their looks bad, message. Which I want to make clear, I fully agree with and take no umbrage with these ideas in the slightest, but going into the film I thought these ideas would be handled with a bit more nuance or depth than they actually were. There are a few ideas that are explored in interesting and thought-provoking ways, but the majority of them just end up feeling very basic, and thus underwhelming. One of the ideas that is highlighted in a really well done way, is the generational gap between Keira Knightley’s Sally Alexander and her mother, played by Phyllis Logan. In a heated exchange between the two, Logan’s character angrily reveals that Knightley’s character never wanted to be like her and always wanted to be like her father, to which Knightley’s Sally agrees with wholeheartedly, but the reason why she distances herself from her mother is not because of any malice towards her, but towards the box that society has trapped her in. It’s an interesting twist on the traditional parent/child argument, and it’s an easily digestible interpretation of the generational disconnect that you see often in our contemporary times surrounding progressive ideas. 

If all of the films messages and ideas were tackled at the same level of refinement as this one is explored with, my review would be significantly more glowing. But unfortunately, a lot of the ideas feel tired and uneventful (by contemporary standards); ideas such as Women’s place at the patriarchal table (when they’re actually allowed a seat) not being treated equally as the men as the table, and the objectification of women through beauty competitions (regardless of how the women voluntarily enter into them) can be read as a reflection of the social media age we’re currently in, but similarly there’s nothing groundbreaking about these ideas or how they’re tackled. For me this is the biggest flaw of the film, especially considering the topic and the aims of the film, which I maintain are completely in the right place, I felt let down by the end product of these ideas, which is a shame.

Philippa Lowthorpe, is undoubtedly a talented director, her talent hasn’t had much opportunity to be seen on the big screen so far (something I hope changes going forward) but her work on TV has been superb, with two of the best episodes of The Crown, and the mini-series Three Girls, under her belt, she has proved herself to be a superb talent behind the camera. And Misbehaviour continues this trend, with Lowthorpe drawing out some great performances from the likes of Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley and Greg Kinnear, to name a few out of an impressive cast. And alongside the direction of these actors, her collaboration with cinematographer Zac Nicholson, ends up crafting some really well composed shots. Some of my favourite are in the early preliminary beauty competitions, that frame the women against crowds of men from a slightly lower angle, which represents the way these women are objectified and metaphorically, and literally, placed on a pedestal due solely to their looks. Similarly later on, during the Miss World competition, the shots of the Women’s Liberation activists protesting have some really nice blocking and composition that highlight not only the chaos of the moment, but also the turning tide that the moment causes for a lot of the characters alongside their empowering nature.

I previously mentioned some of the actors that Lowthorpe brings good performances out of, but the whole cast does a great job. I mentioned Knightley and Buckley, who are two of the best in the whole cast, they both play strong women fighting for equality and feminism, but at opposite ends of the spectrum and therefore their characters are often conflicting and at other times on the same page, and their performances convey this well as the two have great chemistry. They provide an interesting dichotomy about the level of radicalism needed to make waves (although I’m no way near informed enough to make a judgement about the validity of the film’s answer), as well as the pros and cons of both of their approaches. But aside from these two strong performances, one actor that really stood out for me was Greg Kinnear’s turn as comedian Bob Hope. He perfectly captures the sense of sleazy and savvy, utilising his position to not only be nearer beautiful women, but also passing off his intern’s/worker’s jokes as his own. He hits all the right notes to get you to loathe his character, which is exactly what the film wants, and Kinnear relishes in the role. 

To conclude, this is one of those films where I like all the individual parts, but as a complete package it fails to live up to the weight of its themes and ideas. The whole film just seems to lack the gravitas of the message it’s trying to convey, alongside the issues of sexism, the film also tackles the ideas of racism and the impact of apartheid in South Africa. But the film never really explores these themes in any great depth, revolving mainly about the inherent sexism of the contest. It’s exploration is unfortunately sprawling and ultimately unfocused, leaving the whole film feeling underwhelming, even with the other elements succeeding. While the acting, and technical elements are good, they’re nothing extraordinary and thus the film, without the necessary weight of its subject matter, ends up feeling good, but far from great.

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