Sashaying in the footsteps of Made in Dagenham, Battle of the Sexes and Hidden Figures to sprinkle Hollywood dust on milestones of the fight for gender equality, Misbehaviour offers a post-millennial viewpoint on the women’s liberation protests at the 1970 Miss World pageant.
With over 100 million viewers, the beauty contest was then the most-watched television programme on the globe – or as the show’s compere tells us on screen, more than the moon landings or the World Cup final.
By following both the women’s liberation activists and the competitors on the podium, the film offers a nuanced view of the London event. At the same time, a black woman from South Africa competes and a black woman from Grenada wins for the first time, which the film links to pressure from the Anti-Apartheid movement.
The contrast between mature university student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and commune-dwelling artist Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) draws out class differences within the movement. Robinson sneers at Alexander’s request for a place at the high table through education. Indeed, much of the film examines what these and many women do to take their place, or smash their way, into the patriarchy.
There are Miss World contestants who flutter their eyelashes and giggle that they don’t understand the protesters’ problem; Lesley Manville and Keeley Hawes star as long-suffering wives to show organiser Eric Morley and host Bob Hope, showing that such deference is no guarantee of happiness 20 years into the gig.
One too many late nights campaigning sees Alexander coming home late to her mother on babysitting overtime, sparking a heated argument about women’s role in the family; fighting oppression for one is neglecting one’s duties for the other.
Fan favourite Miss Sweden Maj Johansson (Clara Rosager) takes furious cigarette breaks to rail against the ridiculousness of the contest, while for black contestants like Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), winning would be an almost unthinkable privilege she would never take for granted.
Produced by Pathé, the makers of Selma, Suffragette and Pride, this multi-faceted narrative leaves the audience to draw their own conclusion as to whether it is enough to modernise beauty standards with racially diverse winners, or if the contest is problematic for all women.
What it lacks in class analysis, the film makes up for in feel-good feminist energy.