The term ‘girl power’ has always done more for news sound bites and the pop culture zeitgeist than for any actual history of feminism. That’s because it’s a lot easier to market off the Spice Girls and Buffy Summers for press than it is feminist celebrities like Gloria Steinem or Kathleen Hanna. Phillipa Lowthorpe’s new ensemble biopic “Misbehaviour” tries to mesh both the fun of girl power with the seriousness of feminism to mixed results. The British produced feature was originally released in the UK theaters way back in March (the very same week the pandemic broke through interestingly enough) but is just now making its way to the US via VOD.
The comedy-drama follows the events leading up to the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant in London, England through the eyes of many real-life based characters. There’s Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), the no-nonsense divorced mother trying to get back into university for her career; Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), the radical former art school student who thinks being loud is the only way to send a message; Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), the South African pageant contestant who fears life might actually be worse once she returns home from the competition; and Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the lovely Miss Grenada contestant who might be the right amount of naïve to make it far into the pageant. Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes play married pageant showrunners Eric & Julia Morley, and Bob Hope and his wife Dolores even appear in the cast portrayed by Greg Kinnear and Lesley Manville. All of their story arcs intersect as Sally, Jo and their fellow Women’s Liberation supporters secretly show up at the televised pageant to make their own live demonstration.
“Misbehaviour” was scripted by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, but with how their names are listed in the credits, I have to wonder if the original screenplay was written solely by Frayn and Chiappe or was brought in later for rewrites. Though the reception for the movie has been mostly decent, there have been some reservations about a few things. One is that the story is too serious and important for the lighter tone Lowthorpe set up with “Misbehaviour”. It’s appropriately somber as the film dives into sexism and racism as themes, but then for the rest of the runtime, we get an uplifting, feel-good atmosphere along the lines of a Penny Marshall hit. For the most part, I personally was fine with the mood Lowthorpe set up, though I can see why some viewers would want a more straight forward piece.
The performances are fairly good, especially Mbatha-Raw who practically carries all of the film’s heart on her own. Kinnear’s prosthetics to resemble Hope are a little distracting, though it really looks like he’s putting effort into his portrayal. All in all, I would say “Misbehaviour” probably could have said a little more about intersectionality in feminism, but it’s alright for an enjoyable 105 minutes on screen.