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Non-Review Review: Misbehaviour

Misbehaviour is a charming an engaging film that suffers slightly from the lack of a clear focal point.

Philippa Lowthorpe’s historical drama-comedy is set against the backdrop of the 1970 Miss World pageant in London. The event became something of a point of convergence in the cultural wars spilling over from the end of the sixties, a target for the anarchist fringe, the anti-apartheid campaign, and for the nascent women’s liberation movement. At the same time, a quieter revolution was taking place within the event itself. Grenada had sent its first contestant to take part, while South Africa sent a black woman to represent them for the first time.

Misbehaviour features an incredibly stacked cast and diverse array of perspectives, looking at the central event through a variety of radically different prisms. There’s a sense that Misbehaviour wants to offer a genuinely intersectional perspective on the events of that explosive contest, the film’s form resembling its core themes. It helps that Lowthorpe has assembled an increidbly charming cast, and that spending time with just about any member of the ensemble is a worthwhile endeavour of itself.

At the same time, though, the film struggles to balance its large ensemble. There are occasionally too many plates spinning, and too much space between them. By the time that the film has checked in on all the major characters and circled back around, dramatic momentum has been lost and the film has to spend a minute or two regaining its footing. As a result, Misbehaviour never works as well as it might, feeling a little too clumsy and broad. Still, there’s a lot to like about it.

Early in the film, Sally Alexander is interviewed for a place studying history at Oxford. As part of the process, she is asked to explain why Britain has never had a revolution. Sally rejects the assumption baked into the question, pointing out that Britain enjoyed radical changes in the wake of the Civil War, but that they were reversed within a generation. “So the real question,” Sally responds, “is why all our revolutions fail?”

Misbehaviour unfolds against the backdrop of failed revolutions. The sixties were a decade of radical social change and upheaval, but the opening scenes of Misbehaviour suggest that their ultimate impact was minimal. Bob Hope is still entertaining the troops in Vietnam, despite all the protests at home. Miss World was the most watched event in the world in 1969, seen by more eyes than the moonlanding itself. Meanwhile, the women’s rights movement is only beginning to organise, with Misbehaviour demonstrating how novel the word “sexism” was even in 1970.

In its own way, Misbehaviour offers its own answer to Sally’s accusatory question. Misbehaviour suggests that meaningful social change needs to be brought about through unity and consensus, that the key to making a difference is to build a coalition composed of individuals with different perspectives. This process begins quite early in the process, when the academically-inclined institutional-reformer Sally Alexander is brought into contact with the more radical and socially-disengaged Jo Robinson.

Misbehaviour repeatedly argues that neither woman will get far on their own. Sally is frustrated when her “seat at the table” turns out to be “a high chair”, while Jo’s attempts to get the word out about her cause are hamstrung by her refusal to engage with the establishment media. Sally is able to bring a bit of organisation and savvy to Jo’s protests, while Jo injects a little radicalism into Sally’s attempts at reformation. The two play well off one another, as demonstrated in the easy chemistry between Keira Knightley as Sally and Jessie Buckley as Jo.

Misbehaviour goes further than that. It extends beyond the privileged protestors who would dismiss the Miss World pageant as a “meat market”, and also draws in the contestants themselves. Many of these women have their own perspective on the contest. Sandra Wolsfeld (Miss United States) sees the competition as an opportunity to launch a career she would not otherwise have. Pearl Jansen (Miss Africa South) wants to avoid political controversy that could have real repurcussions for her at home. Marjorie Johansson (Miss Sweden) finds the whole thing distasteful.

The best moments of Misbehaviour arrive at moments of intersection, such as a short conversation between Sally and Miss Grenada in a bathroom after the context, in which Sally tries to complain about how “narrow” the opportunities for modern women are. An air hostess who would have no other path to her career in broadcasting, and one of the first prominent black women to feature in the contest, Jennifer Hosten has little patience for Sally’s privileged dismissal of her involvement. “I can’t wait until I have your opportunities,” Hosten sighs, more resigned than angry.

Misbehaviour draws together an intensely talented cast, including Knightley, Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lesley Manville, Greg Kinnear, Keeley Hawes, Rhys Ifans, Phyllis Logan and Suki Waterhouse. The nature of the film means that these cast members tend to cluster around one another; Kinnear and Manville share scenes as Bob and Dolores Hope, while Hawes and Ifans play off one another as Julia and Eric Morley, while Knightley and Buckley spend a lot of the film bouncing off one another.

There is something endearing in the extent to which Misbehaviour tries to give the bulk of its cast something to do and something to play, particularly in allowing Kinnear and Ifans to inject a little bit of almost absurdist levity into the film in their sequences. However, it does unbalance the film. Each of the strands contains some kernel of drama and character. Even with the cartoonish sequences involving Bob Hope and Eric Morley, there is some sense of frustration and tragedy underpinning the women who share their lives.

However, Misbehaviour struggles to integrate all of these elements thematically or organically, often settling for an approach that feels like a spin of the roulette wheel. The audience spends minutes at a time with particular sets of characters in isolation, before transitioning to another set of characters seemingly at random. The individual elements are workable, but the decision to stay with individual threads for so long saps the film’s momentum.

To be fair, ensemble dramas are hard work. There is a reason that so few directors are consistently good at them, like Paul Thomas Anderson or Robert Altman. Indeed, even directors who can make the format work struggle to do so consistently, as Steven Soderbergh has demonstrated. One of the great innovations of Game of Thrones as an ensemble drama was the way in which it navigated its vast ensemble through shared theme and connective tissue, allowing these transitions to feel organic and internally consistent.

Misbehaviour is a film that could use a might tighter structure. There’s a lot to recommend the film. Indeed, even its biggest flaw derives from a strong thematic sensibility, a desire to offer a very diverse and inclusive array of perspectives on the events that it covers. Misbehaviour is a gentle and charming film with a strong ensemble that helps compensate for some of its more glaring weaknesses.

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