Not everyone in Philippa Lowthorpe’s “Misbehaviour” has signed up for the revolution. Wide-ranging to a fault, the filmmaker’s multi-faceted look at the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant weaves its tale from the perspectives of a litany of players involved with what turned into a culture-shifting protest. It’s not just the women’s libbers on offer here or an assortment of conflicted competitors, it’s also the pageant brass, various members of the press corps covering the event — hell, even special guest Bob Hope (a disarmingly icky Greg Kinnear, and that’s very much a compliment) gets his own arc. While Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe’s script works hard to give all of its players dimension, such an overstuffed narrative tends to do the opposite, limping through sub-subplots and continually introducing new characters, leaving its main attractions to twist in the wind.
And yet even that doesn’t stop the film’s many (many) stars from shining on occasion, including both Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as seeming adversaries who might have more in common than meets the eye, plus a radical Jessie Buckley and a pleasingly deranged Rhys Ifans (to say nothing of the amusingly off-kilter spin Kinnear puts on his role as the beloved comedian). All of them come together to deliver a slice of history that, despite its revolutionary roots, feels far too tame to deliver any sort of fresh messaging.
Still, some audiences will likely spark to the wackiness of its story, one of many new films out this year that speak to the enduring power of protest in the face of injustice. In “Misbehaviour,” it’s the women’s liberation movement that takes center stage, as the films opens just as Vietnam is raging and the rest of the world is struggling to keep up with seemingly violent, speedy changes.
Knightley stars as Sally Alexander (all of the main roles are based on real people, with an array of them appearing during the film’s particularly moving closing credits), a modern woman pushing for nothing more than a seat at the table. That’s an ask that doesn’t just put her in conflict with the male-dominated academic world she’d like to enter — an early scene features a board of interviewers obviously ranking her looks, when all she’s attempting to do is pass muster to enter an undergrad program — but with the more rabblerousing of her sistren, including Buckley as the graffiti-loving Jo Robinson.
As the pair attempt to work alongside each other in service to the growing women’s lib movement — one dramatized by both legitimately rousing speeches and the somewhat obvious use of music cues like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” — a real enemy emerges just out of frame. Well, out of frame for Sally and Jo, but very much in frame for the film’s audience, who spend as much time with its ostensible heroes as it does with the apparent baddies, including Ifans as Eric Morley, the founder of the Miss World pageant and a man so stubbornly resistant to change that even his own wife huffs that he’s forever “living in the ’50s.” Then there’s Kinnear’s inspired turn as Hope, here portrayed as an insufferable womanizer deserving of one hell of a #MeToo outing.
All of these characters unexpectedly converge on the pageant, an old-fashioned event that Sally and Jo fix on, even as Lowthorpe (mostly) introduces its competitors with grace — all of the contestants could easily fuel their own feature film. Mbatha-Raw shines as Miss Grenada, while Loreece Harrison charms as Miss Africa South and Clara Rosager livens up her turn as Miss Sweden. Everyone’s good, but with such little meat for everyone to bite into, it’s difficult for anyone to be great.
It’s similarly tough for the film to alight on a single tone or narrative through line, as it limps and stumbles around in the lead-up to its central plot: what happens when Jo and Sally and their compatriots launch a protest in the audience of the Miss World pageant. While Lowthorpe’s even-handed approach is quite respectful — if watching women be treated with the same respect as cattle doesn’t rattle you when it’s happening in bald-faced terms, maybe the way it impacts seemingly “unwoke” bystanders like Sally’s own change-averse mother might do the trick — but it blunts the passion of so many of its characters and their very real fights.
No matter what side of the debate audiences fall on, “Misbehaviour” has a character for that, and while such “all sides” filmmaking is in short supply these days, it’s for good reason: it’s just damn hard to care about anyone here. Stellar performances can only carry it so far, and when “Misbehaviour” finally puts all its disparate pieces and people together, the result isn’t exciting so much as inevitable and hammily handled. It should all be dynamite, but it fizzles out, too tame for a revolution, too polite to pop.
Shout! Studios will release “Misbehaviour” in select theaters and on various VOD platforms on Friday, September 25.
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