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Ben O’Shea Film Review: Misbehaviour starring Keira Knightley

3 stars

The 1970 Miss World beauty pageant was shocking at the time for a number of reasons.

Activists from the women’s liberation movement hijacked the telecast, for starters, throwing flour bombs on to the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall, as a TV audience of 100 million people tuned in from around the world.

Then there was the victory of Jennifer Hosten, aka Miss Grenada, the first black woman to wear the Miss World crown, and a runner-up finish by Pearl Gladys Jansen, a black South African, which happened as anti-apartheid protests raged in the street outside the venue.

In Misbehaviour, British director Philippa Lowthorpe’s big screen adaptation of the event, one of the most shocking things is the rampant misogyny of pageant host and American comedy icon Bob Hope, as played by Greg Kinnear, and that of Miss World founder Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans).

Kinnear, admittedly, doesn’t give the most convincing Hope impersonation, but much of the dialogue Hope and Morley utter in the film was lifted straight from archival footage, and the fact it is so jarring to the ear is a reminder of how times have changed.

Where the film could have taken a scalpel to its examination of gender and race politics in the 60s and 70s, it opts instead for a feather, tickling the audience’s funny bone with a lively performance from Jessie Buckley and a rare comic turn from Keira Knightley as real-life feminists Jo Robinson and Sally Alexander, respectively.

It is, for the most part, a successful and engaging strategy — it isn’t British feel-good cinema’s first rodeo, after all — but one can’t help but think the film’s light touch acts to diminish the hardships that were probably faced by Hosten and Jansen.

Though her character is given a fairly superficial story arc, Gugu Mbatha-Raw does a lot with a little, imbuing Hosten with a grace and quiet determination that fills in the gaps.

Knightley’s character, on the other hand, is arguably the only one in the film that is fully realised, but that’s mostly because the whole thing zips along at a pace that makes fleshing out backstories tricky.

With three BAFTAs to her name for her work in TV, Lowthorpe still manages to convey her message and have us care about the characters, even though we may not ever truly get under their skin.

And, when the real women who were at Miss World 1970 appear at the end, well, it’s feel-good filmmaking as only the British know how.

Misbehaviour is also a treat for fashion nostalgics.

Misbehaviour is screening at the British Film Festival at Palace Raine Square tonight, and will be in cinemas from Thursday.

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