Beauty queens and women’s libbers clash at Miss World in Misbehaviour, a playful recreation of the 1970 contest in London, famous both for being briefly halted by stage-mounting protesters and for crowning the competition’s first black winner.
Philippa Lowthorpe’s film, inspired in part by a Radio 4 programme that brought all sides together in 2010, proves an entertaining watch as it follows the preparations for the contest, the planning of the protest and the parallel journeys of air hostess turned ‘Miss Grenada’ Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and mature student turned activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley). In its scrupulous determination to be even-handed, though, Misbehaviour manages to clunkily fudge the issue, lacking a clear point of view on both its subject and its characters.
We’re never entirely sure, for example, if Jennifer is a naïve pawn of cynical vested interests or a canny operator seeking to turn the contest to her advantage. Nor can we be certain if host Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) is intended to be viewed as a vilely sexist misogynist (“Scotch and sofa or gin and platonic?”) or just an unreconstructed relic who should know better.
The only thing the film seems certain of is that Apartheid was a very bad thing. Even here, though, co-writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe pull their punches, declining to take organiser Eric Morley (a blustering Rhys Ifans) to task for permitting South Africa to enter two contestants (one a privileged white, the other a black machinist) instead of banning the country outright.
Between Knightley’s cool intelligence and Mbatha-Raw’s serene elegance, there is room for Jessie Buckley to shine as a strong, spirited feminist and for Lesley Manville and Keeley Hawes to be patiently long-suffering as Bob and Eric’s respective partners. Kinnear, meanwhile, is ace as Hope, deftly capturing both his oleaginous charm and latent insecurity.