Misbehaviour Movie Review: A brilliant film that makes you introspect about the sordid nature of patriarchy
Through the fictionalised re-telling of a famous beauty pageant and its subsequent disruption, Philippa Lowthorpe gives us much to introspect and question in the patriarchal world we inhabit
Philippa Lowthorpe’s historically inspired Misbehaviour is extremely well made, capturing a famous protest (at the 1970 Miss World pageant) that kick-started a much-needed revolution. The significance of this protest reverberated far and wide and proved to be a tipping point in the women’s liberation movement.
Revolution isn’t the easiest of subjects to address via the medium of film. Filmmakers often make the mistake of getting too carried away while dealing with themes that are meant to rouse something dormant inside a viewer. This is where Lowthorpe’s direction and the combined writing of Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn come into play to create a subtle yet powerful story about one of the key issues of our time. The oppression of women, rampant patriarchal conditioning, everyday sexism, and unfair/unrealistic beauty standards and women’s sexual objectification being furthered by competitions such as The Miss World – these are just some of the themes the film dives into.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Misbehaviour keeps things understated for the most part. This is witnessed in multiple scenes involving central character Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley). All it takes is an interruption by a male classmate while she tries to make a point in a study group or a seemingly innocuous comment about where her subject focus must lie by a professor (a man, again), for you to gather how deep the rot goes. It isn’t so much misogyny, but the casual nature of patriarchy that couches such aforementioned gestures and comments in the ‘harmless’ category, which makes it so hard to fight. Knightley’s acting is exceptional in these instances (for the whole length of the film too) as she counters such male behaviour; an exasperated look, a feeling of not being heard (accompanied by ample annoyance) – it’s written all over her furrowed brow.
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Cast: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear, Keeley Hawes, Rhys Ifans
What makes Misbehaviour so engaging is the little scenes and their importance in the grander scheme of things. The big ones, such as the protestors posing as audience members, the attempted invasion of the stage, the flabbergasted organisers, the anxious contestants, and a truly insufferable Bob Hope (a great Greg Kinnear), are all well-documented to dwell too much on. Those small scenes made up of Sally’s many interactions – be it at university or with her conservative mother or with contemporaries in the women’s support group – perfectly encapsulate the underlying message of the film.
The first of the standouts comes early on when Sally is interviewing to be a student at the University College, London. An all-male panel of professors is more concerned as to what her husband thinks of her decision (to pursue a higher education so late) and the fact that she has a young child to look after, as opposed to her understanding of the subject she wishes to major in. Another telling sequence follows a heated exchange between mother and daughter. Sally’s mother doesn’t understand her daughter’s need to vehemently oppose a beauty competition that she considers quite charming. She is quick to remind Sally that the latter used to love playing dress-up during such competitions when she was a young girl. An incensed Sally can barely contain her chagrin as she states that the Miss World pageant objectifies women, holds them to unrealistic standards of beauty, and furthers the patriarchal notion that their worth is only determined by their looks.
Misbehaviour gives a clear nod to the sheer racism being pedalled by the Miss World competition too. Under pressure from journalists and protestors, the organisers decide to invite two contestants (one white and one black) from a South Africa under apartheid. The British media touts a cold, arrogant and indifferent Miss Sweden as the unchallenged favourite, making the white, blonde, and blue-eyed stereotype for beauty starker than ever. Despite the existence of two or three non-white participants, the final decision is but a foregone conclusion. The black Miss South Africa and Miss Grenada find an ally in each other. The former has been sent by her country on the condition that she does not utter a word about life under segregation (not to fellow participants and especially not to journalists). This subject of white privilege rears its head again when Sally and Miss Grenada accidentally cross paths in one of the most meaningful conversations towards the close, making the former introspect on how she may have had it easier than many of her non-white counterparts.
The film is both a political and personal study in attempting to understand and dismantle a society rife with patriarchal conditioning. Through the fictionalised re-telling of the 1970 Miss World competition and its subsequent disruption, Philippa Lowthorpe gives us much to introspect and question in the world we inhabit. Goes without saying, but this one should not be missed.