Misbehaviour

This review contains spoilers.

Yesterday I watched Misbehaviour and to be honest... I found it pretty forgettable.
This is hugely disappointing, as on paper it sounds like my cup of tea: Set in London, in 1970 - and based on a true story, Mature UCL History student Sally (Keira Knightley) and a group of anarchistic feminists (led by Jo Robinson, played by Jessie Buckley) plan to disrupt the annual Miss World beauty pageant.

The film has a couple of subplots - Firstly, the role of Miss World's guest host Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) who infamously "took the winning girl home with him" the last time he guested on the show. Secondly, Sally's struggle juggling being a student, a mother and a feminist activist. Thirdly, the story of Jo Robinson and her "commune" of feminists. And lastly, but most importantly, the role of Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss Grenada and the first black woman to win Miss World.

As it's Women's History Month, there's no doubt that Misbehaviour is a timely film. However, I can't help but compare it to the second last film I saw at the cinema, CĂ©line Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The key difference between the two films? Misbehaviour feels incredibly pandering, whereas Portrait of a Lady does not. I make this comparison because in the wrong hands, Portrait of a Lady on Fire could have easily felt like it had to spell out its themes to the audience, rather than being a beautiful, understated romance. I really enjoyed a speech given at a Women's Liberation meeting at the beginning of Misbehaviour ("If the patriarchy didn't exist, imagine what sort of woman you'd be. How you'd act, how you'd dress, how you'd have sex... who you'd have sex with"), followed by Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' and lots of girl cheering. Who wouldn't want to cheer along too?
But later on, this all starts to feel a little... chick-flicky? In order to successfully join the pageant's audience unnoticed, Sally tells the activists they need to dress the part. In complete seriousness, there is a brief 80's teen movie-style "getting ready" montage - and then we see Sally and the anarchists working on some protest signs to take with them to the pageant - they decide on the slogan We are not Beautiful, We are not Ugly, we are Angry and throw their hands in the air and cheer. Weirdly, compared to the speech at the beginning, this all felt too saccharine and Enid Blyton-esque for me.

The biggest issues I have with this film are its screenplay and its lack of development. The word 'patriarchy' is thrown around way too much ("You represent the patriarchy" "I guess I'll just have to fight the patriarchy on behalf of your daughter" "Patriarchy who?" - that particularly awful last line was uttered by Rhys Ifans's character Eric Morley - the creator of Miss World). Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy films about feminist activists, or key moments from different waves of feminism, it would just be nice if issues such as the patriarchy weren't treated with the same subtlety as a bull in a china shop. It felt as if Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe wrote the screenplay assuming the audience had never even heard of the patriarchy before.
And then of course, there's Jennifer's role in all of this. We see Jennifer befriend the first Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison) – a separate title to Miss South Africa which, during the apartheid, was only awarded to white contestants (this title was introduced after Morley was criticised for a lack of diversity in the competition), but apart from that, things only start to really get interesting after she wins the title. 
Sally heads to the bathroom after the police intervene during the protest. She runs into Jennifer. After assuring her that the activists weren't angry with her and that they were tackling the competition itself, as well as what it represented, Jennifer coolly rebukes Sally, saying that now that she's won, there will be little black girls who finally believe that they have a place in the world - and that one day she hopes to have the same choices Sally has. 

Overall, Misbehaviour has the components of a successful film, but they feel wasted. It boasts a talented cast, but none of the performances truly stand out and it has an interesting story, which feels as if it's been filtered down into its most rudimentary elements.
As well as not delving deeper into Jennifer's story and the issue of intersectional feminism, there is another huge missed opportunity. The film never addresses these questions: can you be a feminist and a beauty queen? Can you be a feminist and enjoy being an object of desire? In order to be truly progressive, should women be free to have the choice to partake in a competition where their looks and measurements will be judged? 
As soon as production companies start green-lighting films which explore these ideas, then maybe we'll really start to get closer to smashing that godforsaken patriarchy.

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