Previous visitors will know that The Not Left Handed Either Film Guide endeavours to be a feminist website. There is almost always comment on the representation of women in the films reviewed, usually in a selection section titled The Ripley Factor, and there is definitely a particular interest in movies that examine or push the boundaries on gender politics. Misbehaviour looks to be one such film.
In contemporary cinema these movies increasingly involve female superheroes or other women fighting back against distinctly male aggression (for the best recent example of this see Revenge), often they are dramas based on real world situations (these I am particularly drawn to and passionately recommend The Breadwinner and Mustang) but sometimes they are true stories of people who made a difference and made history because of it. Misbehaviour falls into this last category telling of the UK women’s liberation movements efforts to disrupt the 1970 Miss World Competition.
Inevitably these factual films, relaying the actual actions of actual people, can tend to have less impact than the fictional stories, especially if they are set in the UK where there is horrid discrimination but not to the level of those living under the Taliban or other oppressive regimes. (Suffragette may be the exception to this rule). I do not want to take anything away from the bravery and determination of all of these women but the battles depicted in Misbehaviour are smaller than in other movies, with few major consequences for those involved. As such the drama feels somewhere muted and the status of the film lessened.
This shouldn’t take everything away from the movie though. It is important to show these types of struggles along side bigger ones because they are still significant and it shows what ordinary people can do to bring change. Misbehaviour is a solid film, rather than a spectacular one. It isn’t as good as something like Made in Dagenham for example, which it probably most closely compares too, but it is inspiring in its own way. A lot of women will be able to see their own experiences in this film and that has great value.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that Misbehaviour could have been better and perhaps it would have been if it had focused more on one thing. There is a lot going on in this film and as a result everything gets a bit diluted. You see the campaigners preparing to disrupt the Miss World competition but we also spend a lot of time behind the scenes of the competition itself.
Arguably this part of the story is actually more interesting, involving race issues as well as gender ones. The film closely follows the journey of two contestants in particular; Jennifer Hosten and Pearl Jansen, the entry from Grenada and the first black woman to ever enter from South Africa. In this sense the film mirrors Hidden Figures which also examined racism and sexism hand in hand, but again it doesn’t do it as effectively as what has come before.
Part of the problem is that in presenting this section of the narrative, any mainstream film is going to be faced by a particular quandary. The movie industry is just not in the best situation to criticise any other institution that judges women based on their looks before their talent. Pots and kettles and a certain darkened hue come to mind. Any movie that casts Keira Knightly in the lead part would look silly if it said a woman’s appearance should never be something they are judged on. Please understand that I am not saying that Keira Knightley is not a talented actor, this is demonstrably not the case, and I am not saying that she should be judged or valued differently, undermined or celebrated, because she is an attractive woman. The undeniable fact though is that like every performer working in movies, male or female, this is a factor. As a result the punches here are either pulled or they just don’t land.
To some extent Misbehaviour works as a lesson in recent history. It is interesting to see the depiction of casual sexism in popular culture and easy to see why it incensed people. We are kidding ourselves if we think the time we are living in now is so different but small progress is still progress. I was surprised to recently discover that the Miss World event is still running, Peter Andre performed last year and Piers Morgan was a judge, but at least it isn’t the cultural event I remember it being in my childhood.
In the end Misbehaviour turns out to be an appropriate title, not only because of the play on words but because of the low level of rebellion involved. Fighting injustice might make for a better story but as it turns out being a little obstreperous can be entertaining too. It’s probably the fifth best beauty pageant movie after Drop Dead Gorgeous, Little Miss Sunshine, Whip It and, of course, Miss Congeniality. Maybe it isn’t the essential feminist parable I’d hoped for but it adds to the number of films that depict a certain female experience and decry a certain male one.
Misbehaviour is out for home viewing now.