Misbehaviour (2020)

Director: Philippa Lowthorpe
Writer: Rebecca Frayn, Gaby Chiappe
Cast: Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ruby Bentall, Lily Newmark, Maya Kelly, Loreece Harrison, Suki Waterhouse, Clara Rosager, John Heffernan, Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes, Phyllis Logan, Greg Kinnear, Lesley Manville
Seen on: 14.10.2020

Content Note: (critical treatment of) sexism, racism

Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is active in the women’s group on her campus and struggles against the sexist condecension she encounters every day. Through that group she also meets Jo (Jessie Buckley) who has a more radical approach to feminism and doesn’t mind a little rule-breaking here and there – the system needs to be overthrown, after all. Sally is taken aback by Jo’s brash manner at first, but she is also drawn to her and her group. When they start to plan a big protest against the Miss World pageant, Sally joins in. Meanwhile, the Miss World preparations are going strong, especially after they had to face some criticism in the past few years. Among the contestants is Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is hoping to win, as unlikely as that is for a Black woman.

Misbehaviour tries many things, and with most things it is rather successful in its attempt to marry light-hearted comedy with complicated political and feminist issues.It’s both fun and gratifying to watch.

The film poster showing Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seated on a throne, Sally (Keira Knightley) and Jo (Jessie Buckley) in front of her and Dolores Hope (Leslie Manville), Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) behind them.

Misbehaviour eschews the reductive view of feminism that most film show (if they show it at all) as one particular, unified feminism. Instead it introduces several different feminisms: we have Sally’s more liberal, fight within the system approach, and Jo’s more radical, dismantle the system approach, united in their criticism of beauty pageants as a symbol for patriarchal exploitation. And we have Jennifer and the freshly appointed Miss Africa South Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) who challenge both Sally’s and Jo’s feminisms with their perspective as Black women within the competition, where they find comradery with each other, and what it means to be shown in a positive light, as beautiful when you’re a Black woman.

It’s a complex situation and the film allows it to be complex. Nevertheless, some perspectives do get a little more attention than others – the activist side of things does seem to outweigh the intra-pageant perspective and Knightley’s star power does draw additional attention. The film stays mostly with her. (Personally I would have probably chosen Pearl as the focal character in Sally’s stead.) It does so without taking from the validity of the less-featured perspectives. And it hints at so much more that would be worth telling about this story and about the history of feminism. But you can’t cram everything into one film, I’m afraid.

Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) sizing each other up in the bathroom.

That it even attempts to put so much into the film, is to its credit, I would say. That it does so while still being a comedy and keeping the light comedic tone throughout is very impressive indeed. It almost smuggles the feminist content in under the radar that way (although, of course, it is front and center). That way, the movie does not deprive us of watching Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) getting humiliated (or of Lesley Manville’s exquisite schadenfreude as Dolores Hope), which I would say is a definite plus.

Altogether, I had a really good time with the film. Since I’ve seen so many films already take on feminism and failing utterly, it was refreshing to see a film that achieves a thoroughly feminist point of view and is fun while it’s at it.

Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) running from a billboard that Jo just spraypainted on.

Summarizing: entertaining.

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