Misbehaviour, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, made by an all-woman team and starring women, is a clever, funny, inspirational feminist film about the Women’s Lib Movement and the Miss World contest. Attempts to bring down the patriarchy remain ongoing.
Ms Worldby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
“We have to find a language”, women realised if they were going to gain gender equality. So in 1970, the new word ‘sexism’ was coined at a women’s conference in Oxford; the Women’s Liberation Movement was launched, women’s collectives were formed as for the first time women mobilised to fight against a patriarchal society that sidelined them. Exciting times. Though, as we see in the film, despite feminism, in many ways oppression is passed on from generation to generation by women themselves.
Based on true events and real people, Misbehaviour is that rare thing, a truly entertaining, clever, funny and nuanced film about politics and women. Keira Knightley is Sally, an articulate middle-class single mother who has to overcome male prejudice to be accepted as a mature student at University College. At the Oxford conference, she encounters Jo (Jessie Buckley) a rip-roaring, convention-defying anarchist activist. It’s an inspirational odd-couple synergy made in heaven. Jo supplies the raw anger and physical energy and Sally the intellect and acceptable public face of a militant movement. There were subtleties of interpretation between them, but they saw the need for a ‘spokesman’ – a usage which shows how far language has come since the Seventies.
In that era, the annual Miss World contest was televised live to 100 million viewers around the world. Women representing their countries paraded in swimsuits and were introduced using their vital statistics as if in a cattle market, in a way that’s totally unthinkable now. The Miss World brand was the empire of Eric and Julia Morley. Eric (Rhys Ifans) was the quick-thinking, rough diamond shyster (to him, Women’s Lib were ‘mischief makers’) and Julia (Keeley Hawes) was his classier, more diplomatic other half (‘We must adapt or die.’). There’s a wonderfully funny scene at the rehearsal, where Eric demonstrates how the winner should behave when crowned. The Morleys considered it a coup to have veteran comedian Bob Hope (played by US comedian Greg Kinnear) to compere the 1970 show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lesley Manville is superb as his sardonically unimpressed wife, scathing about his infidelity with a previous Miss World winner.
Women’s groups decided that a protest at the contest would bring them worldwide television publicity for the newly founded Women’s Liberation Movement, so they planned to infiltrate the audience and disrupt the event. On the night they were all so incensed by dinosaur Hope’s tasteless, outdated misogynistic gags that they all erupted earlier than planned with slogans, placards and flour bombs and stopped the show. The soundtrack is the apocalyptic ‘Carmina Burana’.
Misbehaviour intercuts the stories of the fledgling women’s libbers with those of the Miss World contestants, presented as having a range of reasons for entering. As well as sexism, patronising treatment and misogyny, which not everyone recognised as such, the black contestants had to contend with ingrained racial prejudice. Ironically, 1970, the year of the women’s lib protest, was the first year that there had been a black Miss World contestant from apartheid South Africa, Miss Africa South (though there was also still a white Miss South Africa). And it was also the first year that a black contestant won – Miss Grenada, clever, politically aware Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And Miss Africa South was runner-up.
Misbehaviour was inspired by the Radio 4 programme The Reunion. Producer Suzanne Mackie says she knew straightaway that this was a story she wanted to make into a film, in order to pay tribute to a past generation of feminists. It runs a gamut of points of view. It’s joyous, funny and inspirational and – when at the end we see these real women as they are now, still feminists – it’s incredibly moving. This film is an absolute must-see.
Misbehaviour previewed for International Women’s Day and is released on 13 March 2020 in the UK. MISBEHAVIOUR is launched as a digital download on 15 April 2020. The film will be available on all platforms (including Amazon Prime, Sky Store and iTunes) for an exclusive period.