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September 22, 2020



Philippa Lowthorpe -2020
Shout! Studios

There is not that great a distance between the mischievous children in Philippa Lowthorpe's previous film, Swallows and Amazons and the disruptive women of Misbehaviour. Lowthorpe shows a delight in the shenanigans of this loosely assembled group that made up the beginnings of the Women's Liberation movement in Britain, notably putting a halt to the Miss World competition that was internationally broadcast in November 1970.

It is to the credit of Lowthorpe and screenwriters Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe that they are able to present a story about the cultural shifts that took place fifty years ago without a heavy hand. The essentially true story cross cuts between the burgeoning activism of then student Sally Alexander and her cohorts, with the organization of the 1970 Miss World competition attempting to stay relevant initially based on charges of racism, particularly in the representation of South Africa. For the Miss World organization, progress seems to be one step forward followed by two steps back as Bob Hope is brought in as special presenter, bringing with him his own questionable relationship to the contest.

In retrospect, there was an unintended symbiotic relationship. While the Women's Liberation movement was quite visible in protesting beauty contests, questioning the ways in which women were objectified, the Miss World competition was radical in that a woman of color, Miss Grenada (Jennifer Hosten) had won. The contest also, at the last minute, included a black woman from South Africa (Pearl Jansen) in addition to the white contestant, with Ms. Jansen taking second place. Aside from breaking the racial stereotype regarding notions of physical beauty, Hosten's professional life in academia and diplomacy benefitted from greater gender equality.

The Bob Hope seen here is the one that was generally hidden from the public in 1970. He accepts the gig to go to London, much to the chagrin on his long-suffering wife, Dolores, who knows all about his infidelities. The last time Hope was at a Miss World contest was in 1961. The winner, Rosemarie Frankland, had a long-term relationship with Hope, hinted at in the movie. While Hope was still popular with a sizable audience, his brand of humor was increasingly dated. In a bit of dramatic license, Sally Alexander nearly has a direct face-off with Bob Hope, anarchic feminism versus the hidebound patriarchy. What is true is that Bob Hope, who had years of live performances under the threat of wartime conditions was rattled by this group of unruly women.

Keira Knightly appears as Sally Alexander, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Jennifer Hosten. Greg Kinnear has Bob Hope's facial expressions, but not his speech cadences, alas not in the same league as his impersonation of Bob Crane in Auto Focus. My two favorite performances belong to Jessie Buckley as the joyfully careless Jo Robinson who pulls Alexander into her group of street activists, and Lesley Manville as the steely Dolores Hope. The film ends with brief titles with post contest followups, with the real life Alexander, Hosten, Jansen and Robinson making appearances. If some of the issues raised in Misbehaviour seem obvious or familiar, the film should be understood as noting a time when such issues became inescapably part of the general conversation.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 22, 2020 06:37 AM