Misbehaviour (2020) Review

Keira Knightley Jessie Buckley

Misbehaviour (2020)
Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Screenwriters: Gaby Chiappe, Rebecca Frayn 
Starring: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Rhys Ifans, Greg Kinnear

Misbehaviour, the latest film from ‘Call the Midwife’ and ‘The Crown’ director Philippa Lowthorpe, is on the surface a story about the Women’s Liberation movement’s protests of the 1970 Miss World competition, but is actually played as more of a charming, heartwarming and funny film about feminism.

Fear not. Even men can enjoy it.

This historically accurate drama seeks very honourably to explore different faces of feminism and femininity, not siding with one particular type of woman or branch of feminism. As Sally Alexander (Knightley) reminds us throughout… the fight isn’t against the women competing or any individual woman, more the systems in place.

The central characters are not written to create a binary, the activists are not infallible heroes and the Miss World contestants are not all bad or needlessly stupid. Nuance is allowed in this film.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers one of the picture’s best performances as Miss World contestant Jennifer Houston, a woman with her own political motives. Houston’s character calls out the sometimes narrow radius for inclusion that appears in feminism on the big screen, reminding even current audiences of the importance of intersectionality and even going so far as to critique white feminism in a subtle but necessary way.

Phyllis Logan as Evelyn Alexander at one stage delivers a wonderful speech about the contradiction of feminism – unfortunately, sometimes you have to accept that you have responsibilities as a mother, or you have to learn how and when to pick your battles – which only works to reinforce the importance of inclusion in feminist movements both from their time and in ours.

Another standout character is Jo Robinson, played superbly by Wild Rose star Jessie Buckley. Her character stands out against the backdrop of activist stereotypes that make up the movie’s supporting cast, Buckley disrupting expectations of ‘the angry feminist’ with a warm though passionate and sometimes rude, sometimes angry but always likable representation that you can’t help but to enjoy every minute of.

It would be easy at this juncture to praise the writing and performances on offer in Misbehaviour and forget that the people presented in the film actually existed; so many of the characterisation anchor points were built from the foundations of information readily available to screenwriters Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn, and the real-life people behind each of the characters could be considered even more extraordinary than their fictionalised versions. As such, Misbehaviour feels as if it could have been better served as a documentary, this film echoing Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy in how its real-life characters were of the utmost interest and almost everything else besides felt unnecessary to creating emotion or lifting the true story into a piece of art. One particularly striking example of this was the film’s opening, which featured footage of Bob Hope’s famous Christmas show for Vietnam soldiers – the film inter-cutting archive footage of the soldiers with Misbehaviour’s own footage of Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope in what was the most clumsy of transitions, leaving one to wonder whether it was the rights to Bob Hope’s likeness or the hundreds of extras that this production didn’t have the budget to afford.

It was a moment indicative of the film’s wider issue of holding little by the way of a cinematic presence. In a year with so many films that have already demanded the big screen experience – The Lighthouse, Parasite and 1917, to name but a few – it seems easier than ever to be let down by a film that feels as though it was made for TV. Perhaps it was to be expected of a filmmaker whose career thus far has largely featured credits on television dramas, but at times Misbehaviour felt like it was taking a safe approach to presenting what was a strong script.

Whether it was through a lack of solid creative vision or a fear of detracting from the importance of the true story, overall this particular release failed to rise to the level of the classic true-to-life silver screen stories of the past, and despite some genuinely strong moments and all of its good intentions, was outshone in the genre by fellow 2020 true story Richard Jewell.

Less a cinematic experience and more an interesting story that more people should know about, Misbehaviour is one you’ll want to see, but don’t worry if that’s only on TV.

15/24

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