Rarely has the generation gap been as wide as it is in the recent documentary Miss Americana, where Taylor Swift’s middle-aged male advisers try to discourage her from making political statements: Bob Hope would never have risked such a divisive move, they argue. Younger viewers asking “Bob who?” can now discover exactly what this popular entertainer represented by watching Misbehaviour. The film revolves around the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant, held in London and compèred by Hope (played by Greg Kinnear). Previous demonstrations had been confined to the pavements, but this time the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement penetrated the ceremony and targeted both the host and the entire sexist institution. That sent a message to the millions watching worldwide: abandon Hope all ye who enter here.
Misbehaviour follows two women who come to the cause with contrasting ideologies. Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is a mature history student who wants a seat at the table. The firebrand Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) would prefer to tip it over. When they meet at a Women’s Liberation meeting, Jo wonders why Sally aspires to join the male establishment. Sally responds that it won’t be male once she’s part of it.
She later sees Jo defacing a sexist billboard, and tries to warn her of the approaching police officers, only for both women to be chased through the streets. Do you think Sally and Jo will overcome their differences to work together on the anti-Miss World campaign, while in the process learning about one another to the sound of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”?
Even before they disrupt the contest, things are looking shaky inside the Miss World camp. Controversy surrounds the choice of a white Miss South Africa, so the contest’s founder Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), known as “Mr Miss World”, defuses the situation by appointing a second, black competitor, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison): Miss Africa South. The only other black contestant is Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), representing Grenada, and it is to her that the composer Dickon Hinchliffe has assigned a piano motif, hopeful and ever-so-slightly patronising, which singles her out as if by spotlight and hints at the new context she brings to an otherwise cut-and-dried case. Sexist the pageant may be, but her presence in it will serve as a symbol of inclusivity.
The director Philippa Lowthorpe (who made the powerful BBC series Three Girls) and the screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe are not in the business of letting the audience work things out for themselves. The opening sequence cuts from Hope on stage with a Miss World contestant to Sally’s university interview, where she is assessed by the panel as though she were in the swimsuit round. The harrumphs that accompany her single-parent status would be enough to signal chauvinism, but the film also shows one interviewer secretly scribbling a mark out of ten for Sally’s appearance. His colleague reaches over to cross it out: it’s not that he disagrees with judging women by their looks, he just thinks she merits a higher score.
The philosophy is that if a point is worth making, it’s worth making four or five times. Phyllis Logan is beautifully pinched as Sally’s mother, Evelyn, but she would have had even more scope for excellence if the character did something other than deliver disapproving remarks like a malfunctioning Stepford Wife. And after Sally likens the contest to a cattle market, Eric’s directions to his underlings during a dress rehearsal (“Herd them! Herd them!”) provide a recap for anyone who wasn’t paying attention. There’s nothing here to spoil the happy-clappy, upbeat Brit-com formula that has persisted in our national cinema since the mid-1990s. Films in this vein have already made the case that homophobia ended when miners marched with gay rights activists (Pride) and that the gender pay gap was closed forever at an Essex motor plant (Made in Dagenham). Play Aretha Franklin loudly enough and you can drown out any amount of nuance.
It would be churlish to pretend there wasn’t some joy to be had in the performances. Rhys Ifans’s jolly spiv routine, with trilby and camel-hair coat, amounts to a glorious George Cole tribute act, while Keeley Hawes is exceptionally droll as Eric’s wife, Julia. “Apparently, they’re going to overthrow the patriarchy,” she tells him, casual to the point of boredom, and leaving a comic pause right before “overthrow” while she strokes his head reassuringly.
But it’s unclear what the story gains repackaged as drama rather than documentary. More insights, and more goosebumps, are available from listening to the British Library’s oral history project Sisterhood and After, where the real Jo Robinson recalls how she watched the expectant crowd arriving for the show while she waited for her fellow protestors. “I began to think: ‘Why are we so against it? Everyone else likes it.’… I really had big dilemmas sitting there.” It’s fascinating to hear her ambivalence, and frustrating that it hasn’t survived in the film.
dir: Philippa Lowthorpe
This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down