' ' Cinema Romantico: Misbehaviour

Tuesday, October 13, 2020


Near the conclusion of “Misbehaviour”, Philippa Lowthorpe’s UK film about beauty pageants and those who would protest them, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Miss Grenada, who has just been named Miss World 1970, and Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), the woman’s liberationist who has just interrupted Hosten’s crowning by throwing stink bombs, meet backstage. If the moment is a convenient narrative ritual, the way it is portrayed and played transcends the device’s treacly nature. Jennifer and Sally are not forging common ground or even brokering a peace so much as finding themselves at an impasse; they’re both right. It’s a refreshing multi-dimensionality, an acknowledgment and brief exploration of the world’s prominent grey areas that, alas, is in short supply in the movie preceding it. “Misbehaviour” forgoes an interesting character study to soften edges and simplify situations for the sake of something examining All Sides in so much as it is crafting an entertainment meant to appease Everyone. Paradoxically, it too frequently feels in line with the generic taste of Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), the two-footed ham who runs Miss World.

As “Misbehaviour” opens, Lowthorpe cuts between footage of a beauty pageant and Sally applying to study at University College London. The review board facing Sally is all male and as she sits down, two of the gentleman rate her looks, equating the latter with the former, not just a demonstration of the inherent social sexism she faces but the movie’s oft-obvious presentation of it. Though she is buttressed back home by a partner (John Heffernan), the gender roles are reversed, not simply in his wearing an apron, much to the disgust of Sally’s mother (Phyllis Logan), but how the character is written as nothing less than the Supportive Spouse archetype. If it’s a failure in a vacuum, in the broader scope, it’s also the cows, quoting Lt. Frank Drebin, coming home to roost, a man reduced to the one-note role so many women have been relegated to in movies over the years. To his credit, Heffernan knows it and fades into the background from the jump. When they have arguments, the camera lingers on Knightley’s making sense of things facial expressions, underlining the moments as hers, not his.

Eventually Sally joins the women’s liberation movement, forging an unlikely friendship with Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley), who lives in a women’s commune and would rather spray political graffiti then hand out leaflets. If Knightley does a solid job fitting in without shedding her character’s inherent civil air, Buckley’s character constrains her performance. Though Jo is supposed to be a radical, “Misbehaviour’s” aesthetic is so moderate it unintentionally douses any sense of righteous fury, as if afraid of offending the wrong person, inadvertently taking the piss outta the whole revolution. 

If Sally and Jo epitomize liberation, Jennifer as well as Pearl Jansen (Loreece Harrison), Miss Africa South, epitomize representation, even if their underwritten subplot unintentionally denotes representation’s limits. Miss Africa South takes that name from being the country’s black Miss World representative, while a white contestant – Miss South Africa – is sent along too. And though we hear Pearl explain she was ordered in no uncertain terms by her country not to speak out about apartheid lest she be sent home, little context is provided to reinforce this significant political pressure she faces. Likewise no context is provided to show what Miss Granada being the first black winner means; it’s as if simply putting her on screen is enough. To Mbatha-Raw’s credit, however, she gives as good a performance as she can, best in moments when she is not forced to recite clumsy dialogue, like a close-up where she watches other contestants having a good time on a night off, the smile on her face quietly eroding, the professionally mandating joy giving way to personal melancholy and the cross she bears.

As a villain, the patriarchy, simply in and of itself, the idea, the concept, is far too abstract for a movie like “Misbehaviour”, forcing it to give the patriarchy a face. Not Eric Morley, mostly just mincing comic relief, but Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), enlisted as Miss World 1970’s special guest. Armed with a golf club like a royal scepter, Kinner, alas, leans a little too heavily on facial mimicry, playing the heel to a fault, never quite getting across how Hope could mask his sneering sexism in comedy, lessening the portrayal and unfortunately rendering the patriarchy as something akin to just this one bad apple. Then again, just as there is something refreshing in seeing Sally’s partner reduced to The Supportive Spouse, there is something refreshing in Lesley Manville as Dolores Hope, Bob’s spouse, in the performance of the film, transcend The Suffering Spouse archetype in her final scene, right after Miss World concludes, leaving Bob at a loss for what the world has become.

Manville is not simply reprising her performance in “Phantom Thread”, mind you, but she affords the moment similar astute, wicked psychology, evoking everything women throughout the ages have been forced to put up with, assuaging her idiot husband’s ego so deftly he can’t quite see she’s just asked him, if not in so many words, why don’t you take your ball and go home? 

No comments: