An Unmissed World
Anyone taking an interest in the future health of British cinemagoing may be pleased to hear that attendance at the film I ventured out to see this week was double that of the week before: which is to say, there were two of us here. At least I think there were only two: the other person was clearly deeply unsettled by the fact that my allocated seat was potentially within viral-transmission distance of theirs, and withdrew to the darkest corner of the theatre. As I say, I think that's what happened. Word has reached me that the big mainstream cinemas will be reopening in Oxford in a couple of weeks too (it seems like a line in the sand has been drawn to protect the cinematic release of Tenet), so we shall see how things pan out then.
For now, though, it's still mostly art-house movies, a few old favourites (no sign of our own dear Queen's supposedly favourite film, ah-ahh, though apparently that is showing in some places too) and a few films which had their initial release clobbered by the lockdown which have crept back into cinemas for a day or two. I was here to see one of these: Philippa Lowthorpe's Misbehaviour, which had been out for less than a week in March when all the cinemas closed. (No sign of Military Wives, which I saw the first thirty minutes of before the power failed in the cinema. Oh well: some things are clearly not meant to be, and it wasn't as if I was enjoying it that much anyway.)
The movie opens with variations on the theme of a wall of men: hundreds of US soldiers serving in Vietnam (it is 1970) express their admiration for the reigning Miss World, who has been brought to see them by legendary comedian Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear), while aspiring university student Sally Alexander (Keira 'Twice' Knightley) faces a not entirely sympathetic interview panel. As exercises in setting a tone go, this is not the most understated in history, but the film does improve.
Sally ends up joining a Women's Liberation group led by a – hippy aarchist? anarcho-syndicalist? drop-out? – named Jo (Jessie Buckley) – the far-left politics of the group are sort of danced around delicately, as they are supposed to be our heroes and thus not too off-putting for the traditionally more middle-of-the-road viewer of feelgood British based-on-fact social entertainment. The Libbers are not pleased that Miss World 1970 will be happening in London itself, and hit upon a scheme of doing more than just picketing the event – they will get inside and disrupt it.
This is one whole strand of the movie. Happening in tandem with it is the story of Miss World 1970, told from the inside: the event is the brainchild of Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans), a businessman and promoter still remembered on British screens courtesy of a perpetual credit on the grammatically-suspect celebrity hoofathon juggernaut Strictly Come Dancing (Morley created the original Come Dancing format). He and his wife Julia (Keeley Hawes) are contending with all manner of criticism, on grounds of both sexism and racism (the anti-apartheid movement have the contest in their sights).
The thing which elevates this strand of the movie far above the level of that with the protestors is that everyone involved seems to have twigged that all you need to do to make it absolutely clear what an indefensibly sexist anachronism Miss World was (and possibly remains: I wouldn't know, as it's kind of slipped off the cultural radar in the UK) is to just present the facts in a relatively straightforward way: I say 'relatively straightforward' because there is always the possibility of the scriptwriters slipping something in on the sly. But I am assuming it is a matter of historical record that, in order to fend off allegations of racism, the competition included both a Miss South Africa (paler complexion) and a Miss Africa South (not so much), that the contestants were measured and checked for padding ahead of the actual event, that the choreography of the television coverage was quite so reprehensible, and so on. It is ghastly, but you feel you're being allowed to make your mind up about this for yourself, rather than having someone shout editorial commentary in your ear (which is the case with many of the scenes with the protestors and their encounters with the patriarchy).
The scenes with Sally Alexander, Jo Robinson and the others feel like they're from a slightly different movie, in that they are clompingly nuance-free and rather simplistic: it's clear there were political differences amongst the protestors, but these are essentially ignored in the name of an I-expect-it's-supposed-to-be-life-affirming-and-empowering tale of sisters coming together to stick it to the man. It feels like lowest-common-denominator film-making, and the strangest thing is that almost seems to be at odds with the other strand of the movie.
This is because, rather than operating in terms of duotone absolutes (beauty contests – BAD! lipstick – BAD! and so on), the behind-the-scenes part of the film does the contestants the great service of not treating them as victims or drones or idiots, but allows them the opportunity to make it clear why they have chosen to take part. Some of them are simply in it for the money, but for others the issues involved are more complex. Here the film starts to deal with the issue of race, and does so with more sophistication than I would have expected – although I detect a certain tentativeness on the part of the script to get into anything too complex and challenging. The best thing in the movie is Gugu Mbatha-Raw's performance as Jennifer Hosten, the Grenadan entrant, as she provides the sort of depth the film is largely missing.
Of course, what you're hoping for is the scene where Sally (who thinks the contest is an exploitative outrage and an affront to all women) and Jennifer (who sees it as a chance to raise the profile of and create opportunities for women who aren't Caucasian) talk the issue over. For a long time it looks like this isn't going to happen, but the scriptwriters eventually contrive one – however, they basically just skim over the surface of the topic in a couple of minutes, so you're ultimately left feeling a bit unsatisfied.
It's a shame, because the film could easily have lost a bunch of other scenes and used the time more effectively. There's another subplot about Bob Hope flying in to appear at the contest, and to say this is unflattering is to put it rather mildly: he comes across as pompous and sleazy, much more so than Eric Morley himself. Why have they even bothered to make such a fuss about Hope's fairly small part in this incident? Well, I guess that putting Greg Kinnear and (Academy Award Nominee) Lesley Manville in the publicity will help them flog a film about feminism in the States (Manville plays Hope's long-suffering wife). Also, the one thing about this incident that everyone remembers is Bob Hope getting flour-bombed on-stage during the protest itself, so it would be odd not to include Hope in the movie in some way.
As you may recall, when the theatrical run of Misbehaviour was originally curtailed or delayed or suspended, I passed a quiet evening by watching Carry On Girls, another British movie inspired by the same events. That turned out to be a much grislier experience than I recalled, so the bar for Misbehaviour was lowered a bit. In the end – well, I turned up to the movie expecting to be preached at, and for some of the time I was. However, the behind-the-scenes bits of the film are interesting and occasionally thought-provoking, with an impressive performance from Mbathu-Raw and a fun comic turn from Rhys Ifans (in places it's almost as if he's trying to do Sid James, only in the wrong movie). There is enough of a glimmer of recognition that some of the issues involved here are not as simple as they first appear for the film to ultimately be fairly satisfying, even though it's still very patchy.