The cheerfully one-dimensional “Misbehaviour” puts a smiley face on female rage. A comedy flecked with seriousness, it revisits a 1970 feminist protest against the Miss World pageant in London. Bright and insistently upbeat, the movie has period polish, some swinging detail and a sympathetic cast headed by Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessie Buckley. Like most commercial movies about feminist history, though, it also has a toothless vision of protest and empowerment that’s doomed to fail its subject because its makers don’t (can’t) risk making the audience uncomfortable.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the movie personalizes its story with a manageable handful of characters, including Sally Alexander (a fine Knightley), an academic. In short, bouncy scenes, she is shown as smart and ambitious, loved by her family but thwarted by her sexist colleagues, which leads her to join the nascent women’s liberation movement. Her ostensible opposite is Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), a.k.a. Miss Grenada, who arrives amid a sorority of giggling contestants. Jennifer isn’t given much to do or say, but Mbatha-Raw makes it clear that the character has an inner life, with faraway looks that you hope foretell that a more interesting movie is on the horizon.
The two women are ready-made for dialectical fun but are largely separated on parallel tracks. The movie — the script is by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe — establishes two opposing camps: one populated by the pageant people, the other by the feminists, including Buckley’s Jo Robinson, a live wire. While men linger in the background on Team Libbers, they take a prominent role on Team Pageant because the filmmakers seem to think the audience needs reminding that sexist men can be, well, sexist. So, rather than deep, revealing looks into the lives of the contestants, there’s a lot of the show’s host, Bob Hope (an affable Greg Kinnear with a fake schnoz).
Lowthorpe spends a wearying amount of time on the comedy of male buffoonery. The marquee clown is Hope, who’s introduced in the opening via parallel montage with Sally, and comes with his own aggrieved woman (Lesley Manville, adding bitter tang to Mrs. Hope). The most cartoonish buffoon, however, is Eric (Rhys Ifans), who with his wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), runs the contest. It’s mildly amusing to watch Ifans swan about in a pageant crown and cape when he shows the contestants how to walk onstage. The contenders tee-hee-hee and you might too, even if there’s nothing all that funny about how strenuously the movie tries to soft-pedal sexual exploitation.