Actresses steal the show in a film that challenged its writers.


Object lesson: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Suki Waterhouse and Clara Rosager


At first sight the concept behind this film may have suggested that it would readily yield a work that was timely and guaranteed to succeed. When issues about female equality both in the world of film and generally are so prominent what could possibly be more apt than to make a film created by women and centred on the disruption of the 1970 Miss World competition when the host, Bob Hope, was severely discomforted by feminist protestors? After all, even if the event was quickly over, it can legitimately be presented as a foretaste of what was to come since only months later the Women’s Liberation Front would be on the march in central London.


But, when you look at Misbehaviour and see how the endeavour has turned out, it is at once apparent that the idea was actually full of difficulties. The fact that Bob Hope remains so well known, his features and style so familiar, means that any actor pretending to be him - here it is Greg Kinnear - is bound to fall short, and that is just a minor example of the problems inherent. The film takes as its central characters two of the women who were among the protesters and gives them their real names - that’s Sally Alexander played by Keira Knightley and Jo Robinson played by Jessie Buckley. Sally may be a bourgeois figure and Jo more of a rebel, but beyond that little emerges here: we see Sally as a divorcee and mother living with a new partner (John Heffernan) and her own traditionally minded mother (Phyllis Logan), but this is merely sketched in and we learn even less about Jo. Meanwhile, Bob Hope has to be established as a relevant figure too, but to open the film cold with unexplained intercutting between Sally applying to study at University College in London and Hope entertaining the troops abroad is clear evidence of the difficulty the writers have in bringing the various threads together effectively.


Before long another problem becomes evident, that of tone. The assumptions of the time about a woman’s place, including those held by Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) the founder of Miss World, really call for satire, but the film largely stops short of that even if it is sending up the male attitudes of the era. Furthermore, however deplorable those elements seem now and however much they evidence underlying outlooks that still concern feminists today, the material hardly carries sufficient weight to play as drama while at the same time it involves enough that disturbs us to prevent it working readily as any kind of comedy. The result is that we have a film that is competently mounted but which never achieves a character that truly feels right as a way of looking back on attitudes that pertained fifty years ago. Late on in the film Sally has a brief confrontation scene with one of the contestants, Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has a conflicting view of things and just for a moment we have a glimpse of the more insightful take that would have been possible.


Ultimately, two things stand out. First, despite the film’s weaknesses, Misbehaviour, with Philippa Lowthorpe as director, two women writers and two female producers, may well be applauded by feminists who will certainly feel that the movie’s heart is in the right place. Secondly, it demonstrates the quality of several of its performers who triumph over the problems that I have outlined. One of these, Rhys Ifans, is a man, but aptly enough the chief bouquets go to actresses. Knightley herself has had better roles, but Mbatha-Raw with her splendid presence stands out as does Jessie Buckley confirming the star quality that became evident in Wild Rose. Even so, the highest praise of all must go to Lesley Manville. In the relatively small role of Bob Hope’s wife she steals the film: she may have little to work on but you cannot take your eyes off her.




Cast: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans, Greg Kinnear, John Heffernan, Suki Waterhouse, Ruby Bentall, Alexa Davies, Lily Newmark, Loreece Harrison, Clara Rosager, Emma Corrin, Emily Tebbutt, Emma D'Arcy, Katy Carmichael, Isis Hainsworth, Lily Travers, Eileen O'Higgins, Stephen Boxer, Kajsa Mohammar, Maya Kelly, Daniel Tiplady, Jo Herbert, Amanda Lawrence, Miles Jupp, Rupert Vansittart.


Dir Philippa Lowthorpe, Pro Suzanne Mackie and Sarah Wheale, Screenplay Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, from a story by Rebecca Frayn, Ph Zac Nicholson, Pro Des Cristina Casali, Ed Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, Music Dickon Hinchliffe, Costumes Charlotte Walter.


Pathé UK/BBC Films/BFI/Ingenious Media/Left Bank Pictures-Pathé UK.
106 mins. UK/France. 2020. Rel: 13 March 2020. Cert. 12A.