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Misbehaviour: Comic drama about Miss World 1970 is messy in ways, but consistently watchable

3 stars

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Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour

Philippa Lowthorpe’s comic drama Misbehaviour amusingly drags together three wildly incongruous strands - old Hollywood, radical feminism, and the mad world of beauty pageants. And in fact its plot might seem wildly fanciful were it not based entirely on real events.

The time is 1970, and Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes play Eric and Julia Morley, the impresario couple responsible for the Miss World contest. In those antediluvian times, Miss World was big business, a hugely popular TV event watched at its peak by as many as 18 million people worldwide.

The 20th show was scheduled to take place on November 20th, 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall, and so far as the Morleys were concerned it was business as usual as they screened and coached more than 100 international contestants. What they didn’t know was that a small but dedicated feminist cell was out to spoil their party.

Keira Knightley and the ubiquitous Jessie Buckley play Sally Alexander and Jo Robinson, members of a Women’s Liberation group who are horrified for obvious reasons by the very existence of the Miss World contest. Seeing the huge potential for band-standing at an event that will be broadcast live around the world, they decide to sneak in as audience members and stage a noisy protest: but righteous feminist anger will prove difficult to control.

Meanwhile, Eric and Julia Morley have invited Hollywood legend Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) to compere - despite the fact that the cheesy comic ran off with the winner the last time he hosted the event. An old style ladies’ man and loather of all things feminist, Hope will prove the perfect foil for the avenging females, whose plan involves hurling flour bombs and invading the stage.

But to further complicate things, 1970 was the year when a woman of colour won the event for the first time. Miss Grenada, Jennifer Holson (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a smart and ambitious young woman who sees the contest as the stepping stone to a broadcasting career.

She’s bewildered by the protesters’ anger, and at one point Misbehaviour takes the liberty of throwing her and Sally Alexander together in a Royal Albert Hall toilet for an encounter that demonstrates their mutual incomprehension.

Misbehaviour isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining, and gives an intriguing insight into what compliant sheep most of us are. In these days of the virtual scarlet letter, people are cancelled at the faintest suspicion of not complying with strict if sometimes baffling gender codes. But in 1970, virtually everyone was fine about the idea of a primetime contest that involved parading young women around in swimsuits and giving the ‘crown’ to the prettiest.

I dimly remember beauty contests being shown on the television in the 1970s, and even then their rituals seemed surreal - the Barbie poses, absurdly coiffed hair, those awful little number bracelets that made the women seem even more like cattle at a mart. But at this remove their casual objectification seems positively staggering: during the film an absurdly sleazy compere asks the girls to turn around on stage so that the judges (all male) can get a proper look at the contestants’ bottoms. How in God’s name did anyone ever think that was alright?

Fascinating as all this is, Misbehaviour has structural problems. The more relatively recent a historical period is, the harder it is to cinematically render. They get the clothes right, the bell-bottoms, tank tops and bad haircuts, but the film’s depiction of the grim and retrograde 1970s is self-conscious, too coloured by retrospective wisdom. The decision to tell three stories simultaneously is brave, but ultimately next to impossible, and if most of the models seem like caricatures, so to do many of the furious feminists. The real women they’re based on were heroes, who risked hatred and arrest for disrupting an event most people in the 1970s considered a harmless and decorous entertainment: one could argue that they deserve a film to themselves.

Bob Hope was always a great favourite in our house: we loved The Cat and the Canary and My Favourite Brunette, and imagined him an affable, generous fellow. The real Bob was mean and spiteful, and still running after ‘dames’, as he liked to call them, into his 80s. Greg Kinnear does a decent job here of capturing that odd mix of spite and charm, and his Hope looks spectacularly anachronistic.

This is a messy film in ways, but consistently watchable. Jessie Buckley gives a rather hyperactive turn as the stridently radical Jo Robinson, but Keira Knightley is suitably earnest as the more thoughtful and conflicted Sally Alexander, who feels for the young women caught in the centre of this storm. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw grounds the film with her still and regal portrayal of Jennifer Holson, whose victory on that November night was destined to be overshadowed. Depressingly, the BBC received a deluge of complaints after the real Jennifer Holson won.

(12A, 106mins)

Also releasing this week:

The Hunt

3 stars

Damned by the right, rejected by the left, castigated by that master film critic Donald Trump, The Hunt was mired in controversy before it was ever released.

It is not a subtle film, and it is exceedingly violent, but it’s also a satire that takes clumsy pokes at America’s political chaos.

A group of gun-loving Republicans wake to find themselves adrift in open country being hunted by wealthy, sneering liberals.

Conservative commentators have angrily accused the film of bias, but I think it shows more contempt for east coast liberals. And amid the blood and guts, its message is clear: in America, no one is listening to anyone.

(18, 90mins)

My Spy

3 stars

Wrestler-actors are a vibrant Hollywood subspecies these days, and in My Spy former WWW champ Dave Bautista flexes his comic muscles.

He is JJ Cena, a tough CIA agent who’s given the demeaning job of surveilling a single mother with connections to a French terrorist. Everything’s going swimmingly until the woman’s precocious daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) finds out what’s going on, and blackmails JJ into teaching her how to be a spy.

Arnie and Dwayne Johnson are past masters at these sickly sweet little-and-large comedies, and Bautista isn’t so bad either: My Spy is predictable but cute, eminently watchable.

(12A, 99mins)


Calm with Horses

3 stars

Adapted by Joe Murtagh from a Colin Barrett short story, Nick Rowland’s gritty Irish crime drama has serious plot holes, but moments of emotional power.

Some fine performances too, particularly from Cosmo Jarvis, who shows real charisma as ‘Arm’, an ex-boxer who’s fallen in with a criminal gang.

The Devers family run all the drugs in the area, and ‘Dympna’ Devers (Barry Keoghan, as intense as ever) uses Arm as an enforcer. But his heart’s not in it, and Arm’s more worried about his ex-partner and their young son.

Tragedy looms, and Calm with Horses lays it on pretty thick at the end, but there are flashes of fine film-making.

(16, 100mins)

Irish Independent