Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour recreates the disruption of the Miss World contest in London in 1970 – depicted as a fun-filled feat with far-reaching repercussions.

The battle lines are draw in the opening sequence with real footage of American entertainer Bob Hope cheering his country’s soldiers in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Hope’s act, a cocktail of comedy and sexism, includes parading Miss World winners before thousands of lusty soldiers. Hope is later portrayed by Greg Kinnear with a wandering eye and an outdated view of women as “girls”.

Meanwhile in London, Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) struggles to be taken seriously at her history course at university. The fiery but prim Sally is an odd fit in a group of younger radical feminists who want to make a difference – emphatically.

The opportunity presents itself in the form of the meat market that is the beauty pageant. Organisers Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes), who are modelled on the event’s real-life founders, work hard on putting up the best possible show.

The screenplay, by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, treats its weighty themes with lightness and joy. Bright colours and soft lighting further attempt to leaven a movie about the many ways in which women are objectified, dismissed or simply ignored in a world whose rules are drawn up and administered by men.

The insidious ways of the patriarchy emerge in several sequences: the contempt of Sally’s professor and peers, the misogyny that passes for humour in Bob Hope’s routines, the classification of women according to their measurements at the beauty pageant. The movie throws in an added layer of tension. The contest might be unfair to women in general but it gives the Black women from Grenada and South Africa a unique opportunity to assert themselves.

The solidarity that develops between feminists across the ideological spectrum is paralleled by the bonds that emerge between the competitors. Whether on the stage or in the streets, women find occasion for empathy and rebellion whenever they put their minds to it, the movie powerfully suggests.

Keira Knightley admirably leads an ensemble cast that includes Gugu Mbawtha-Raw as Miss Grenada, Lesley Manville as Bob Hope’s long-suffering wife Dolores and Jessie Buckley as the uninhibited activist Jo. Greg Kinnear, as Bob Hope, and Rhys Ifans, as Eric Morley, are convincing ambassadors for a sexist state of mind that has shown remarkable persistence.

A story of rage and protest framed as a feel-good tale, Misbehaviour often runs the risk of making its central act of transgression look too easy. However, the overall message – that women must “misbehave” in order to create change – survives the adventure. The moving end credits, which reveal the women who inspired the film, indicates that bad behaviour is very necessary indeed.

The 106-minute movie is being shown on BookMyShow Stream.

Misbehaviour (2020).