The struggle to overthrow patriarchy is ongoing

Patrick Mulcahy on the birth of modern Women’s Lib

The film Misbehaviour focuses on the disruption to the 1970 Miss World contest, when members of the Women’s Liberation Movement caused the live BBC broadcast to go off air. Yet the mostly female ensemble headed by Keira Knightley and including Jessie Buckley, Keeley Hawes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lesley Manville are all but eclipsed by Rhys Ifans (almost unrecognisable) and Greg Kinnear as Eric Morley, who started the Miss World contest for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and comedian Bob Hope respectively. The villains really do have the best parts.

Knightley plays divorced single mother Sally Alexander, who at the start of the film attends an interview for a place to study history at University College London and is rated by two members of the male panel. She attends the first ever conference of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Oxford where she meets Jo (Buckley, reprising her Wild Rose sassiness), who with her friends is putting a banana skin on a male bust. “Don’t do that. Think of the person who has to clean up after you,” remarks Sally, a hint of the campaign for the rights of night workers the real Sally pursued. In London, Sally runs into Jo again as she defaces a poster with the message ‘Keep the woman in your life happy – learn to cook’. She warns her that a policeman is approaching, allowing her to avoid arrest. Jo Ann invites Sally to a women’s group meeting in Islington and soon Sally is writing posters and advocating engagement with the media to get her point across. She excites ire when the Islington group issues posters that condemn the Miss World competition. Sally is nominated to speak in a television panel, where she makes her points well but is disregarded by the male host and the other guests.

In parallel, we see the preparations for the 1970 contest, including co-show runner Julia Morley (Hawes) calling Bob Hope. Hope’s new personal secretary agrees on the star’s behalf, without being aware that Bob’s wife Dolores (Manville) disapproves. In 1961, Hope hosted the show and brought the Welsh winner, Rosemarie Frankland, back to Hollywood in a futile attempt to make her a star – the two had an affair. Rosemarie eventually married another man but became a drug addict and died of an overdose in 2000. Eric is visited by the anti-Apartheid campaigner Peter Hain, who insists that he does not have South Africa represented by a white Afrikaaner. Eric responds by saying the country will be represented by both black and white women – he gets his staff to find someone quickly.

When director Philippa Lowthorpe introduces the contestants arriving in London for the first time, the film comes to life. Air hostess Miss Grenada, Jennifer Posten (Mbatha-Raw) makes friends with Miss Africa South, Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) whilst being introduced to their chaperones. They illustrate the opportunities that the beauty contest afforded – foreign travel, representing their country abroad and using the experience as a springboard to a future career. Pearl also explains how she is limited in who she can meet and what she can say; disobedience means never seeing her mother again.

Humour comes from Eric demonstrating how the contestants should behave in their moment of victory – he puts on the crown and cape and moves with solemn slowness. When the broadcast begins, the sexist BBC commentary needs no embellishment to draw derision.

The script by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe is nuanced. The protesters do have a difficulty: they need to denounce the contest without disrespecting the contestants. Sally also has ambitions to sit at the top table. “My seat was a high-chair,” she later complains. There are numerous scenes of Sally being ignored in her tutorials. When she says she wants to write about women’s role in history, her tutor complains, “Isn’t that a bit niche?” Such dismissive comments exist in universities today; my son received a similar comment when he proposed making a film about a character with autism. (Stand up, University of Gloucestershire Film Production department.)

The film’s most contentious element is the portrayal of Bob Hope. Kinnear plays the man as an apologist for sexism, making a joke at the expense of the protesters outside the theatre. Nevertheless, he is still an entertainment icon who, having died in 2003 aged 103, cannot answer back. Younger audiences may be tempted to dismiss Hope’s contribution to American comedy as a result. The film depicts all its characters in broad strokes, save for Jennifer and Pearl. In the end, you learn something about the period, laugh a little, but don’t have a transformative experience. The film’s best line appears in the end credits – and is the title of this review. It also sums up the quiet rage that exists still.

Misbehaviour is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13 March

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