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Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour.
Photo: Showmax






3/5 Stars


A women's liberation group stage a protest at the 1970 Miss World competition to campaign against the patriarchy.


The 1970 Miss World pageant is almost notorious in history. Not only was it the first year that a black woman took home the crown, but they admitted the first black South African contestant (as well as a white contestant, of course), and it was marred by protests and outcries by the far-left Angry Brigade, the Women's Liberation Movement and the anti-apartheid movement. Misbehaviour tries to depict the catalyst of events that surrounded the pageant but does not go far enough to explore the different points of view of the characters and situations.

Misbehaviour tells the story of two women living parallel to each other but very different lives until they meet in the bathroom at the Miss World pageant. The first is Sally Alexander (played by the always delightful Keira Knightley), a divorced mother who has recently gone back to school to study history. The film tracks her involvement in the women's liberation movement, which resulted in the Miss World protest. The second lead character is Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss Grenada, who would go on to win the Miss World title and become the first black woman to win it.

It is evident that the film sets to frame the story from the Women's Liberation's point of view. A lot of time is spent with Sally and the more radical Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) as we learn their reasonings, plotting, and attempts at change. This film could work as simply a biopic of the feminist movement in the UK, culminating in the Miss World arrests, but because it wants to tell a larger story, some of the plot points suffer. We only really see Jo through Sally's eyes; we don't know why she joined the movements and her experience inside the movement; we barely even know her crew's names.

If you Google any feminist's position on beauty pageants, there are countless reasons why it is harmful to women, not just because they are paraded around like cattle or because they are forced to compete with each other based on beauty. There have been cases about how women are treated in these pageants, the pressure to succeed, and the impact that these pageants' beauty standards have on others. The film scrapes the surface, and perhaps if they had depicted why the feminists feel the pageants do more harm than good, it would have made the audience understand why the women's movement was opposed to the pageant.

Misbehaviour does not seem sure about what it wants to say about pageants, either. As an audience, the stakes are somewhat low because we know that the feminists don't manage to take down the pageant, as it is still going strong. We watch as the women file in, are taken around by a chaperone and are having debates with each other about what the title could mean for them. We are led to believe that the pageant could be a springboard for both the winner, Jennifer Hosten, and the runner-up Pearl Jansen, Miss Africa South (more on that later), two black women who might not have had the opportunity otherwise. But the owner of the pageant, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), is treated as a joke and his wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), as the level-headed forward-thinking one, perhaps because Julia is still the head of the Miss World Organisation.

Even though Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the co-lead of this film, her character almost seems to move through this pageant world silently. We only hear her views when she talks to Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) or Miss Sweden, Marjorie Johansson (Clara Rosager). But despite this, Mbatha-Raw shines in this role; we watch her reactions, emotions as it moves across her face; you want to root for her, support her, and understand how much this means to her.

The film dips its toes into talking about race but does not really delve into it. The main point that Jennifer makes to Sally is that as a white woman, Sally has so many opportunities afforded to her, and Jennifer has to fight for those opportunities even if it means winning a beauty pageant. There are vague strains of intersectionality in this film, but the white feminists are still seen as the heroes of the film.

But race is explored the most with the South Africa issue. Anti-apartheid activists were fighting to get South Africa banned from international events. Miss World tried to deflect this by inviting two contestants from South Africa - a white one and a black one. Jillian Jessup (played by The Crown's Emma Corrin) was Miss South Africa, while Pearl Jansen was Miss Africa South. Pearl talks about how authorities threatened her before she came to the UK, to who she can't speak, and how she will have to go back to the segregated country afterwards. It is emotional to watch because even as Pearl places second and further than her white counterpart, we as South Africans know how little that will impact her standing in the country that will still see her as a second class citizen. But it is a triumphant feeling, even now, seeing a black South African woman being heralded as the second most beautiful woman in the world.

Instead of giving more time to the supporting characters, there was a whole subplot about Bob Hope (played by Greg Kinnear), the enigmatic American host of the event. Bob was the Steve Harvey of his time, and his misogynistic comments on stage prompted the Women's Liberation to throw flour bombs at him. We did not need an entire storyline to understand his misogyny. Men have been misogynistic from the beginning of time, and nothing which he said was surprising. That time would have been better spent fleshing out the characters of Jo, Pearl, Majorie and even Jennifer.

Although Misbehaviour is exciting and even emotional at times, I found that it behaved too much. It seemed as if it was too scared to take on the still damaging beauty pageant industry. Winning Miss World did indeed give Jennifer more opportunities, but it also opened her up to people (including her fellow contestants) making racist comments about her and many people saying that she did not actually win and that black members of the judging panel rigged the pageant. That part of Jennifer's story was not told. The film would have benefited from tighter storytelling and an equal focus on the supporting cast.

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