‘It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting. That’s a support group,’ …was my takeaway line from the recent biographical film about Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Philippa Lowthorpe’s comedy-drama is about a group of women who come to the same conclusion. Angry at the way women are judged on appearances, they stormed the Miss World beauty pageant in London circa 1970. It’s a cool story to be sure, with opportunities for tragedy and farce, and while Misbehaviour might make you wish that there were two competing films on this subject, and this was the more frivolous one, it’s still a decent night in as an all-star romp.
Keira Knightley had been out-danking herself of late; after the lank, dowdy whistle-blower of Official Secrets, this time she skips the make-up again and essays Sally, a young history student, already burdened with a divorce and barely-seen child. She falls in with feminists, specifically Jo (Jessie Buckley) who inspires her with her graffiti and take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to battling male chauvinism. Meanwhile, girls from around the world fly in to Heathrow to meet Trumpian promoter Eric Morely (Rhys Ifans, dripping with self-regard) and prepare for the contest; the MC is Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), who has a bad habit of taking his beauty pageant work home with him, and is consequently under the watchful eye of his wife Dolores (Lesley Manville). A collision course is set on the stage of the pageant, with flour bombs, water pistols and other anarchic devices employed. But after a BBC van is blown up outside the pageant, what will the cost of resistance be for the girls?
This is a great subject for a film, but the screenplay plays down the drama; the girls’ plan is never explained, and there’s no attempt to create any kind of tension. Instead, surprise, surprise, it’s the boys who have all the fun; Ifans hams it up entertainingly as the irredeemable Morely, while Kinnear does a pretty amazing job of channelling Hope, giving his brand of exhausted sexism the hatchet job it deserves. And there’s a nice cameo from comic Miles Jupp as a hapless toady, and even a slam on BBC presenter Michael Aspel. By contrast, the ladies are sketchily drawn, with the contestants not sufficiently differentiated, and the many scandals around the competition disregarded in favour of a simplistic message. The best role is
As drama, the resolution kills Misbahavior’s chance of being a film for the ages. A highly improbable meeting makes nonsense of the obstacles overcome to get two characters into the same room, and no real explanation is offered why the much feared public black-balling of the women doesn’t happen. But as a comedy sketch, there’s plenty to enjoy, with Knightley a personable, likeable lead and plenty of hiss-able chauvinists for her to collide with. Misbehaviour’s take is so frustratingly shallow, you’d imagine that women’s equality was achieved immediately after this protest; that men have all the best lines in this film says something about the residual power of men to side-line women, even in a film about women’s liberation. Misbehaviour is super-fun to watch, but these fictional females seem less interesting than the real-life counterparts revealed in the final credits.