It is 1970, and in London the Miss World beauty contest is gearing up for another year, supposedly a celebration of women and their better qualities, but facing a growing number of detractors for objectifying and denigrating those contestants for reducing them to their looks and placing them in competition with each other in an entirely unnecessary way. Certainly the feminist movement is determined to shout down these examples of the patriarchy, and for mature student Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) it sums up why she feels she is not being taken seriously, be that in the halls of her university or in her life outside of that. But what can she possibly do?
The image of flour bombs raining on the stage of that 1970 Miss World contest while guest compere Bob Hope found his sense of humour deserting him with a pointed “Who are these bastards?!” is one of the defining events of seventies feminism, an act of activism that echoed around the world and made the rest of the decade the first time where that movement really got its claws into the mainstream culture, even if that mainstream reacted with Carry On Girls. Not to mention lumping the censorious conservative Mary Whitehouse's reactionaries in with the killjoy feminists as many regarded them then, and do to this day, glossing over the fact the female half of the population were not in agreement.
That lack of consensus was easy to forget when painting a picture of the forthright quality of the political and social debate, and one that entertainments depicting any kind of sexism of the past has struggled with: the dubious Made in Dagenham opted to throw much of the true story out of the window and replace it with a man being so outraged his wife was now a feminist that he commits suicide. Not every film or television show was that offensive, however, and Misbehaviour was a case in point, for it not only accepted that there were few easy, blanket answers on how to improve women's lives, it positively embraced that conundrum and crafted a far richer experience as a result, brought to life by a terrific ensemble.
The script by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe was as strong on the small details as it was the bigger picture: Sally, with mixed feelings, observing her boyfriend putting on an apron to prepare dinner as her mother (Phyllis Logan) mutters about emasculation, or the protestors to be trying on different outfits to blend in and thoroughly enjoying themselves in a subversion of many scenes in other movies. But more important than that is the black contestants, positioned as an innovation by the Morleys (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes) who run the contest but suspected to be a sop to those who are criticising its insistence on white, Western beauty ideals. Here Gugu Mbatha-Raw almost stole the movie, not through grandstanding but by radiating a quiet intelligence in that her Jennifer Hosten knows why she's there, but also knows this could change her life for the better in ways the protestors would not perceive.
The question of whether women should be judged on their looks was not ignored either: was it fair to give certain people an advantage because they had been born attractive over those who could never hope to enter even the Miss Nantwich competition (no offense, Nantwich)? Yet we judge people on their looks every day, in the media or in life, we cannot help it, and the film did not sweep that fact under the carpet either. That there was so much going on in Misbehaviour did seem to frustrate some viewers, especially in its generous even-handedness: Jessie Buckley as the bolshy Jo Robinson risks making far more enemies than she does allies by being so pushy, yet you can see her point that things need to change. Meanwhile Sally is forced to question how feminist she is by landing her sceptical mother with all her childcare for her little daughter, who unthinkingly emulates the stereotypical images she sees in the media.
Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope was largely tokenistic of chauvinism, though Bob only has himself to blame, Lesley Manville as his long-suffering wife was on screen for too little time considering her abilities and Loreece Harrison as the black Miss Africa South was more of a doormat than the real Pearl Hansen, so it wasn't all plain sailing, but for all its rough edges and attempts to address so much that is still relevant today, this film was in danger of being underrated. It put its points across with humour (reminiscent of the Queen of pageant movies, Michael Ritchie's cult classic satire Smile) and more than a little wisdom that didn't come across as patronising hindsight. Tellingly, in a documentary contemporary to this, the real protestors said they felt things were worse for women now than they had been in those brightly optimistic days of the seventies, not a view that was often taken for that decade from the perspective of the twenty-first century, but here would go some way to explaining why. A bit wild and woolly, but it genuinely made you think. Music by Dickon Hinchcliffe.