Misbehaviour review – revolution shouldn’t be this dull

Good intentions and clever examinations of privilege aren't enough to save this true story of feminist rebellion from boredom

In 1970, the UK Women’s Liberation Movement planted itself on the media map by launching a protest at the annual Miss World competition, using the chauvinistic stage to get their message out to tens of millions of viewers. Phillippa Lowthrope’s Misbehaviour sets out to chronicle both the build up to this historic event and the revolutionary act itself, taking in multiple points of view in the process.

With an undeniable fire in its heart, it’s an undoubtably well-meaning film, but it’s also a prime example of what happens when a movie based on a true story is overmatched by its subject. In trying to cram in as many perspectives as possible, this story fails to find a real focus and very quickly winds up committing that most terrible of cinematic sins: it’s boring.

Misbehaviour‘s most prominent story strand belongs to middle class feminist organiser Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who joins forces with a more anarchist women’s collective – headed by Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) – in order to protest the Miss World event anyway they can. Knightley and Buckley both deliver lively, spirited performances, adding depth to their characters that the script simply doesn’t afford them. But they still can’t quite save the film from its own lethargy.

In alternate story strands, we see the event through the eyes of its contestants and organisers, and it’s here that Misbehaviour proves most frustrating. In centring black competitors – Guyanese air hostess Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and South African factory worker Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison) – Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe’s script cleverly asks hard questions and there are genuine layers to the racist and sexist struggles faced by Misbehaviour’s women.

Yet this good work is undone by an excessive focus on the actual buildup to the event. Repetitive rehearsals and long, drawn-out discussions are peppered with weak jokes that rarely hit their mark (the punny title is about as witty as Misbehaviour’s comedy gets). Time spent in nondescript town halls and offices means there’s less time for character development among the revolutionaries. Elsewhere, relationships develop too quickly and motivations change on a whim. Clearly tons of material wound up on the cutting room floor to make space for not only the Miss World contestants, but also a subplot about the travails of host Bob Hope (played by Greg Kinnear in lousy prosthetics).

Cutting back and forth between stories that only link up during the climax (and, even then, in an annoyingly contrived way) proves less than satisfying, whilst Misbehaviour ends up muffling its stronger points and stifling its best elements to make room for way less interesting fare. The history lesson is undoubtably important, but the execution prevents it from sticking. The revolution may be televised, but when it’s presented with this little flair or thrill, the only real impulse one feels is to simply switch off.

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