Long before the pussy hats turned up protesting Donald Trump’s inauguration and even before Roe v Wade won a major victory in the fight to protect women’s reproductive rights, there was the 1970 Miss World protest and the birth of the women’s liberation movement. Misbehaviour grants us a window into its earliest days when disenfranchised women in London were still coming together and trying to figure out how to translate their rage into concrete action. It has its roots in anger and frustration, but is nonetheless remarkably level-headed in its examination of the different disparate elements of the movement, allowing it to reach viewers on both an emotional and intellectual level. With powerful performances from Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, Misbehaviour is empathetic and thought-provoking.
Sally Alexander (Knightley) has never gone in for conventionality. As a young mother and divorcee, she makes the decision to go back to school and study history, on top of her responsibilities in the trade union and nascent women’s rights movements. She hopes to change things for women by gaining access to the powerful intellectual elite of Britain, as she believes her degree with open doors. This puts her in ideological conflict with Jo Robinson (Buckley), who doesn’t believe that men will ever cede power, so operating within their patriarchal structure is a waste of time. These women represent the two wings of any activist group: the side that wants to enact change from within the system, and the side that wants to burn the system to the ground and start fresh. But despite their differences, they unite with a common goal: to protest the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant.
As a commentary on the movement, Alexander and Robinson represent the head and the heart of women’s liberation. Alexander thinks of women’s injustices as an academic problem to be solved, seeing the interconnectedness of women’s rights and labor enfranchisement and other social issues. She feels some slights on a personal level, like when she is forced to listen to her history advisor patronizingly tell her that studying women’s history is too niche and therefore irreverent, but for the most part she thinks less of the impact on her and more of how these things affect women in general. Robinson, on the other hand, feels every roadblock and misogynistic action on a visceral level. She is so passionately outraged that she is willing to take any actions, without regard for the consequences. Watching their viewpoints ebb and flow and occasionally meet in the middle as they work on their campaign is a celebration of what women can accomplish together.
And while the majority of Misbehaviour is focused on the actions of the women’s rights activists, it’s gratifying to see that significant screen time is devoted to the women competing in Miss World, particularly Jennifer Hosten of Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Pearl Jensen of South Africa (Loreece Harrison), who was brought in at the last minute to appease anti-apartheid activists. Misbehaviour never looks down on or judges women for their participation in Miss World: they’re treated with respect, and even when the protests disrupt the event, they take care to wait until after the Miss World competitors have left the stage. None of this is about humiliating or degraded them: these women are not to be treated as collateral damage in a fight against the patriarchy. Even so, Misbehaviour goes a step further than most movies about the 1970s women’s liberation movement would go, and lightly criticizes it for its lack of intersectionality. This was a predominantly white movement, one that assumed certain realities and privileges that were not universal to all women. When Hosten comments that her representing Black women on a global stage will make little girls around the world think more highly of themselves, it’s a salient point. As is her gentle reminder that while white women may have the luxury of different methods by which to empower themselves, she has fewer options, and no one should begrudge her for employing the ones available to her.
Misbehaviour manages to walk a line between inspirational and academic. It brings in a surprising amount of complexity to the issues confronting the women’s liberation movement, as well as some things that were and still remain major roadblocks within the fight for equality. But it never loses its light touch and its reminder that this was a huge accomplishment for women’s rights groups, and should be celebrated as such. Watching Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley, two actresses with very different energies, playing off each other is an utter joy: their dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of Misbehaviour. And the decision to end the film with images of the real-life women as they are now is perfectly judged: this was an undeniable victory, but this was not as far in the past as it seems, and we still have a long way to go.