It’s something of a mystery as to why the British drama “Misbehaviour” isn’t getting a bigger push in America. The subject is interesting enough: The 1970 Miss World contest in London and its disruption by a front rank of Second Wave feminists. The cast is stellar: Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley (currently starring in Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”), Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread”) and — the cherry on a pretty strange cupcake — Greg Kinnear as the pageant’s host, comedian Bob Hope.
The film was picked up by a smaller distributor and is coming out on video on demand without much fanfare, and I’m not sure why. The movie’s hardly art but it’s a conventionally told crowd-pleaser with solid moments; believe me, you could do worse and often have. Is it the pandemic? The focus on British feminists? That un-American “u” in the title? Beats me.
If anything, Philippa Lowthorpe’s film, from a script by Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn, tries to do too much by honoring every experience of every woman in the room: the academic feminists like Sally Alexander (Knightley) and the rabble rousers like Jo Robinson (Buckley); Miss World contestants like Jennifer Hosten, Miss Grenada (Mbatha-Raw, “Beyond the Lights”) — one of the few Black entrants — and Pearl Jansen, Miss “Africa South” (Loreece Harrison), an 11th-hour addition to forestall anti-apartheid protests. Even Dolores Hope (Manville), wife of the philandering comedian, and Julia Morley (Keeley Hawes), co-manager of the pageant with her husband, Eric (Rhys Ifans), receive tea and sympathy here. “Misbehaviour” is intersectional to a fault, and keeping all those balls in the air is almost more than the movie can handle.
Most of the characters are based on actual people — the end credits graciously introduce us to those still alive — and the drama seems to stick more closely to events than the standard “based on a true story” affair. We see the battles over strategy between staid Sally and punkish Jo, the former balancing a young child, a sensitive partner (John Heffernan), and a disapproving Mum (Phyllis Logan); and the latter a hardline free radical. We see the machinations of pageant officials as they try to remain true to T&A tradition while nodding to modern realities by bringing in judges from non-white countries. We get the backstage dramas of the contestants, including a brassy, insecure Miss USA (Suki Waterhouse). And through Mbatha-Raw’s poised and quietly angry Miss Grenada, we understand what a win would mean to and for women of color.
“Misbehaviour” works its crowded way up to the night of the pageant, a raucous affair that can be read about online and maybe should, if only to clarify some hints the film drops about subsequent controversies surrounding the eventual choice of winner. Kinnear is really quite good as Hope, prosthetic nose and all; he nails the star’s cocksure sneer and the showbiz void beneath. Finally, there’s a scene between the feminist and the beauty queen that lets Knightley and Mbatha-Raw briefly share the screen, that is surely invented for dramatic purposes, and that you wish there were more of. “Misbehaviour” is hardly subtle — you can set your watch by the appearance of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” on the soundtrack — but neither were the times, and the film honors that in messy and generous fashion.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe. Written by Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn. Starring Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessie Buckley, Greg Kinnear, Lesley Manville. Available on cable systems and Video on Demand platforms. 106 minutes. Unrated (as PG: Unruly women, bathing suit events).