There's a great deal going on in Philippa Lowthorpe's Misbehaviour. Single mom Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) is trying to get into a well-respected college while raising her own daughter under the disapproving eye of her own mother. She also helps form the Women's Liberation Movement, an organization that includes the firebrand Jo Robinson (Jesse Buckley), who's all behind the organization's plan to make a big statement – crash the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant. The organizer of the contest, Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), is hoping to make a big splash as well, as he's secured Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear) as the host. Oh, then there's the matter of all the contestants, particularly Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who doesn't see the pageant as an antiquated sexist affair, but rather as a way for her to set an example for young girls in her native Grenada, to show them there are avenues to a better life.
Without question, the late 1960s and early 1970s were tumultuous times, something Lowthrope is intent on capturing in her new film, a noble but scattered enterprise that praises a group of British feminists who were intent on upsetting the status quo. It's a story worth telling, populated by a myriad of fascinating characters, but ultimately the director's well-intended reach exceeds her grasp. While writer Rebecca Frayn does her level best to do the story and its heroines justice, there's simply too many moving parts here to cover adequately in a single movie. A four-hour mini-series would have given Lowthrope the time necessary to adequately delve into the lives of these remarkable women; that being said, this Cliff's Notes approach is not without its charm.
We get quick glimpses of what makes each of the aforementioned characters tick, brief moments we note, yet ultimately have little emotional impact due to their lack of development. Alexander's relationship with her own mother, who has definite opinions on her daughter's approach to being a mom, is a situation that's ripe for further examination which goes unmined, as does her relationship with Gareth (John Heffernan), her domestic partner who she's raising her daughter with. And while Buckley's enthusiasm cannot be questioned, the part she's saddled with is rather thin as we never are never told what drives her to the rebellious acts she enthusiastically commits. The cursory looks we get of the Miss World contestants are equally frustrating in their brevity.
The greatest irony is that perhaps the most fascinating and underrepresented character in the story is given short shrift. Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is confused and a bit appalled by Alexander and her allies once they crash the show in grand fashion. Seeing these rebels as women unaware of their privileged lives, she cannot help but resent their efforts to ruin her one opportunity to get ahead. There's a single scene featuring a conversation she has with Alexander regarding their cross purposes that is criminally brief, a missed opportunity that's indicative of Frayn's script. A play featuring these two women discuss their differences would be a fascinating production.
As with so many films of this sort, we're treated to footage showing the movie's subjects as they look today and are told what they accomplished in the years since the events we've just witnessed. All seem to be vibrant, strong, unique women who reveled in making their voices heard, each cutting their own path with a sense of purpose and distinctiveness. Had Lowthrope and Frayn taken a cue from their impressive subjects, Misbehaviour might have been worthy of them.
Misbehaviour is available through Video-on-Demand.