Just a couple of weeks after we saw Helen Reddy delivering an anthem for the equal rights movement in the early 1970s in “I Am Woman,” the cheeky British comedy/drama “Misbehaviour” tells the true story of how the creaky and sexist 1970 Miss World competition in London provided an unlikely platform for the nascent women’s liberation cause when a group of activists disrupted the live broadcast of the pageant.
Following the playbook of “The Full Monty,” “Calendar Girls,” “Military Wives,” et al., “Misbehaviour” achieves just the right mix of farcical humor, dry wit and the obligatory dramatic moments when the light banter and sight gags give way to Poignant Confrontations reminding us there are serious undertones to this breezy romp. Director Philippa Lowthorpe (“Three Girls,” “The Crown”), working from a well-crafted screenplay by Gaby Chiappe and Rebecca Frayn, does a fine job of balancing the fact-based developments with imagined conversations and cinematic flourishes, all set against the background of hip and happening and restless 1970 London.
You could publish an entire coffee table book of Keira Knightley wearing period-piece costumes, from “Anna Karenina” to “The Aftermath,” from “King Arthur” to “A Dangerous Method,” from “Pride & Prejudice” to “Antonement” and I’ll just stop there. This time Knightley effortlessly slips into the role of Sally Alexander, a divorced mother and “mature” history student in London a half-century ago who joins a newly formed group of feminists, much to the consternation of her proper-Brit mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), who urges Sally to give up this foolishness, realize women can never have an equal place at the table and concentrate on finding a man who will provide for Sally and her daughter. (If you think we’re headed for a blowout scene where Sally lashes out at her “small-minded” mum and her mother gives her a few things to think about it: You’re not not right.)
The ubiquitous — and deservedly so — Jessie Buckley (“Chernobyl,” “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Season 4 of “Fargo”) has the larger-than-life, showcase role as the acerbic, troublemaking, working-class Jo Robinson, who’s had it with polite group meetings and talk of quiet change and is all for causing a major disruption at the upcoming Miss World pageant at London’s Royal Albert Hall. What better vehicle for the movement to drive home its points about women being treated as cattle, as second-class citizens, as objects to be ogled and belittled?
On a parallel timeline, we learn not even the Miss World Pageant is immune to change and controversy. Even as the comically out-of-touch pageant founders Eric and Julia Morley (Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes) run the “girls” through their paces and assign them chaperones and prattle on about how one contestant’s life will change forever when she is given the crown and the sash, there’s change within the pageant, as represented by Jennifer Hosten, aka Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and Pearl Jansen aka Miss Africa South (Loreece Harrison), two Black women who have differing views about what the pageant means to them and to women of color.
As the pageant date nears and there’s talk of some kind of protest, who should arrive on the scene but the evening’s host: none other than the legendary entertainer Bob Hope, armed with a packet of corny, leering, cringe-worthy jokes — and zero tolerance for those women’s libbers. Greg Kinnear, who has played real-life figures from the inventor of the intermittent wiper (“Flash of Genius”) to Joe Biden to football coach Dick Vermeil to actor Bob Crane and played them well, stumbles a bit here as Hope. There’s a prosthetic nose but no other discernible effort to achieve physical resemblance, and his vocal mannerisms fall somewhere between halfhearted imitation and incomplete characterization. The great Lesley Manville gets little screen time but still has a couple of choice moments as Hope’s weary wife Delores, who never tires of reminding him of that time he brought a Miss World back to California with him like a trophy.
The climactic events in “Misbehaviour,” with the protesters infiltrating the pageant (they bought tickets!), disrupting Hope during his sexist monologue by cranking football rattles, holding up signs saying, “WE’RE NOT BEAUTIFUL, WE’RE NOT UGLY, WE’RE ANGRY” and hurling packets of flour onto the stage, make for wonderful onscreen theatrics — and are faithful to real-life events. And when Keira Knightley’s Sally and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Jennifer find themselves together in a dramatically convenient moment, these two wonderful actresses hit it out of the park as they realize they’re basically fighting for the same thing in very different ways.