Review: ‘Misbehaviour,’ starring Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Greg Kinnear, Lesley Manville, Rhys Ifans and Keeley Hawes

September 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Keira Knightley (second from left) and Jessie Buckley (center) in “Misbehaviour” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory)

“Misbehaviour”

Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in London in 1970, the dramatic film “Misbehaviour” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A group of young British feminists stage protests against the Miss World pageant for exploiting the female contestants. 

Culture Audience: “Misbehaviour” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about the feminist movement in the 1970s.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (front row center) in “Misbehaviour” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Factory)

If misbehaving means disrupting and not always being polite, then activists will always be labeled as “misbehaving” by people who want to keep the status quo, even if the status quo is oppressing other people. The people who aren’t afraid to protest and “disrupt” are the heroes of “Misbehaviour,” which takes place in London in 1970, at the beginning of the decade’s women’s rights movement. “Misbehaviour” has many familiar hallmarks of movies that are based on true stories of people who fight against the system. However, the film rises above mediocrity, thanks in large part to well-paced direction and a very talented cast.

The main character of “Misbehaviour” is Sally Alexander (played by Keira Knightley), who evolves from being an introverted college student to a passionate leader of a protest movement. Although Sally’s perspective is the driving force of the movie, in many ways, “Misbehaviour” (directed by Philippa Lowthorpe) tells parallel stories of the lives of the feminists and the lives of women in the story who want more traditional lives for themselves.

In the beginning of “Misbehaviour” (written by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe), Sally is nervously waiting at the University College London, where she is interviewed by an all-male panel of admissions administrators for a graduate program. Her interview is cleverly intercut with scenes of legendary comedian/actor Bob Hope (played with equal parts sleaze and style by Greg Kinnear) hosting an outdoor show for American and British military men in Vietnam.

As Sally lists her accomplishments to explain why she should be admitted into the university, the movie cuts back and forth to Hope introducing Miss World 1969, Eva Rueber-Staier of Austria (played by Kajsa Mohammar), to a leering and cheering audience of soldiers. While Sally hopes to be judged on her intelligence, Eva is paraded on stage as someone who is there just to be judged as a sex symbol to the audience. It’s a scene that has both contrasts and similarities.

Although Sally and Eva are both in their 20s, they both want different things in their lives. One woman has entered a competitive situation (college admissions) where her mind is valued, while the other has entered a competitive situation (a beauty pageant) where her body is valued. What these two scenarios have in common is that men are running the show, calling the shots and determining who gets to be rewarded.

Even during Sally’s interview, she is judged on her physical appearance, as two of the admissions officers scribble on their notepads and show each other what they think of Sally’s looks on a scale of one to 10. Who really knows if this happened in real life? The point is that even on a college admissions panel, a woman can be judged by how “appealing” she looks in ways that men are not judged.

In the college admissions interview, Sally is asked to give a summary of her life up until that point. She says that she left school at 15, but she ended up completing her undergraduate degree at Rustin College. She enrolled in drama school, only because her mother thought it sounded better than going to secretarial school. Sally says that she wasn’t very good at acting, partly because she dislikes it when people look at her.

Sally also tells the panel that she’s divorced with a 6-year-old daughter. Her marital and parenting status raises some eyebrows of the men on the panel. One of them comments to Sally, “You have a child, Ms. Alexander. Studying here is a big commitment.”

Sally then replies that she completed her undergraduate degree while her daughter was a baby. Sally adds, “The man I live with shares child care.” And that raises even more eyebrows with the men on the panel, since unmarried couples living together is considered taboo by many conservative people, especially in previous decades such as the 1970s.

Two months later, Sally is at home with her live-in boyfriend Gareth (played by John Heffernan); her daughter Abi (played by Maya Kelly); and Sally’s widowed mother Evelyn (played by Phyllis Logan). Sally thinks that she bombed in her University College London interview and expects to get bad news that the university has rejected her. Sally’s pessimism turns to enthusiasm when she gets a letter in the mail informing her that she has been admitted into the university, where she will be studying history.

Gareth is a very supportive boyfriend who does things like cook for the family. Evelyn, who has very traditional views of gender roles, thinks that it’s emasculating for Gareth to cook meals and shop for groceries. Many people might consider Gareth a “beta male” because he’s very happy to let other people, like Sally, be more dominant in his presence. Evelyn isn’t shy about telling her opinions to Sally, who often dismisses them as old-fashioned and sexist.

It’s hinted at but not stated outright that Sally was unhappy in her marriage because she felt oppressed by her ex-husband, who is not seen or heard in this movie. Whatever caused her feminist awakening, Sally is now appalled at beauty pageants that Evelyn and Abi like to watch on television. It bothers Sally so much that she will turn off the television if she’s in the same room while they’re watching a pageant. And she objects when Evelyn plays “pageant dress-up” with Abi.

Evelyn expresses dismay that Sally is against beauty pageants, which Sally feels are “degrading” and “sexist” events that exploit women and treat them as human cattle. Evelyn reminds Sally that Sally used to love watching pageants when Sally was a child. Sally responds by saying that she used to eat her own snot as a child too.

Meanwhile, a feminist from a working-class background is seen spray painting this slogan on a billboard: “Down With Penis Envy.” Her name is Jo Robinson (played by Jessie Buckley), and she’s seen doing this kind of graffiti mischief several times in the movie. In one scene, Sally catches her in the act and tells her to stop because some police officers are nearby.

Sure enough, the police see Sally and Jo and the graffiti and chase after them, but Sally and Jo are able to dodge them by hiding in an alley. (It’s a very stereotypical chase scene.) Sally and Jo get to talking and find out that they’re both feminists, but they have very different attitudes about achieving their feminist goals.

Sally is more about being organized and doing things by-the-book. Jo (who is a former art student) is more radical and prefers anarchist ways that would involve breaking the law. Jo tells Sally, “I don’t really do organized.” Sally tells Jo, “I don’t really do illegal.” When Jo invites Sally to her weekly feminist meeting that week, Jo politely declines because she says that she will be busy helping women who work as cleaning ladies to join a union.

But it should come as no surprise that Sally does eventually go to one of Jo’s meetings. They have ongoing disagreements, but they eventually find common ground and are able to work together for the same cause. Eventually, Sally, Jo and the other women in the group decide to stage protests against the 1970 Miss World Pageant.

“Misbehaviour” also takes a look at the major players behind this particular pageant. Married couple Eric Morley (played by Rhys Ifans) and Julia Morley (played by Keeley Hawes) are Brits who own the annual Miss World Pageant, which began in 1951, and by the early 1970s could attract a worldwide TV audience of more than 100 million people. (Eric died in 2000. Julia Morley is still head of the Miss World Pageant.)

The way the Morleys are portrayed in “Misbehaviour,” Eric is the forceful leader, while Julia is the opinionated follower. Eric is an egotistical TV host who isn’t shy about expressing his sexist views of women. He thinks that the contestants’ physical appearances are the only things that really matter in deciding who will win. And he openly makes crude comments about contestants’ body parts. Julia strongly believes that contestants’ personalities should have equal standing in how they are judged in the pageant.

There’s a subplot in the movie about Hollywood comedian/actor Bob Hope, who is portrayed as a serial cheater on his long-suffering wife Dolores Hope (played by Lesley Manville), who knows about his infidelity and openly talks about it to Bob, who tries his charm his way of it. Dolores also talks about the infidelity to Bob’s young lackey Laurence (played by Samuel Blenkin), who helps write Bob’s jokes. Laurence listens sympathetically, but it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with this type of conversation and will always side with Bob.

Bob has recently hired an eager, young female personal assistant named Joan Billings (played by Eileen O’Higgins), who takes a call from the Morleys, who have asked Bob to host the Miss World Pageant. Bob says yes. It’s implied, but not shown, that Bob will eventually sexually harass Joan, based on how Bob ogles her and sizes her up on her first day on the job.

The Miss World Pageant is a sore spot for Dolores, since Bob had a torrid affair with one of the contestants the last time he hosted the show about 10 years prior. The mistress ended up moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, because Bob promised to help her become an actress, but her affair with Bob eventually fizzled. Dolores is understandably not thrilled that Bob will be hosting the Miss World Pageant again.

And within the behind-the-scenes drama of the Miss World Pageant is Eric Morley’s attempt to deal with the increasing criticism that the pageant is getting because no woman of color has been a winner at the pageant yet. In order to deflect the accusations of racism, he decides to let South Africa (then under apartheid rule) send a black contestant, who is hastily given the title Miss Africa South, because Miss South Africa (who is white) has already been chosen.

And the Miss World Pageant’s nine-person judging panel that year also attempted to diversify. Most of the judges were still white men, including American singer Glen Campbell. But there were some women and people of color who were judges that year, such as British actress Joan Collins, Danish singer/actress Nina, Roesmin Nurjadin (who was ambassador of Indonesia to Great Britain) and Eric Gairy, who was the first prime minister of Grenada.

The four Miss World contestants who get the most screen time and dialogue in the movie are Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who would become the first woman of color to win the Miss World title; Miss Africa South Pearl Jansen (played by Loreece Harrison), who has an immediate bond with Jennifer; Miss United States Sandra Wolsfeld (played by Suki Waterhouse), who likes being the center of attention; and Miss Sweden Maj Johansson (played by Clara Rosager), who was widely predicted as the top contender going into the pageant. Miss South Africa Jillian Jessup (played by Emma Corrin) is essentially a cameo in the movie.

In addition to the issues of gender discrimination and feminism that are at the forefront of the movie, “Misbehaviour” addresses racism and “white privilege” in beauty pageants. In one scene, Miss Sweden complains to Miss Grenada about how she’s not used to people ordering her around the way that the Miss World pageant officials order the contestants around. Miss Grenada replies, “You’re lucky if you think this is being treated badly.”

In another scene, Miss Africa South almost breaks down and cries when she tells Miss Grenada that she was told by her country’s government to be careful about what she says to other contestants and the media. She says that the government threatened to revoke her passport if she said the wrong things and she wouldn’t be allowed back into South Africa, where her entire family is. The implication is that because she is the first black contestant representing South Africa in the Miss World contestant, she better not speak out against apartheid.

However, the pageant contestants are really supporting characters to the feminists in the movie. There are a few scenes where the feminists tell people that they are not protesting against the contestants but are protesting against a very patriarchal system of pageantry that reduces women’s value to their scantily clad body parts. Their protests leading up to the pageant get a lot of media attention, and Sally finds herself reluctantly and then willingly becoming the spokesperson for the group.

Pageants realistically won’t be banned, but the protesters want less exploitation of women’s bodies and more emphasis on viewing the contestants as well-rounded people. Easier said than done. Because there has to be some suspense in a movie like this, the last third of the movie involves Sally and the rest of the feminists hatching a plot to infiltrate audience at the Miss World Pageant ceremony and disrupting the show on live television.

“Misbehaviour” is not an Oscar-worthy film because there’s not much originality in how this story is told. However, Knightley, Buckley, Mbatha-Raw, Kinnear and Manville all do very good performances in their roles. The vibrant costume design and production design for the movie are also admirably on point.

And even though “Misbehaviour” has multiple storylines going on—the feminist group, the beauty pageant, Bob Hope’s marriage problems, Sally’s clashes with her mother—it doesn’t feel overstuffed, because the screenplay ties them all together cohesively. If people are in the mood for a feel-good feminist drama and more insight into the 1970 Miss World Pageant controversies, then “Misbehaviour” strikes the right balance of being entertaining and informative.

Shout! Factory released “Misbehaviour” on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Summerland,’ starring Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton and Tom Courtenay

August 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gemma Arterton and Lucas Bond in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

“Summerland” 

Directed by Jessica Swale

Culture Representation: Taking place in England from the 1920s to 1970s (and primarily during World War II in the early 1940s), the dramatic film “Summerland” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A reclusive writer who’s a confirmed spinster must battle against prejudices (including her own) about raising a child during World War II, when she’s forced to become a foster parent to an evacuated boy, as she struggles to come to terms with a secret love affair that broke her heart.

Culture Audience: “Summerland” will appeal primarily to people who like period dramas that are about parental issues or LGBTQ issues.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton in “Summerland” (Photo by Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

The emotional drama “Summerland,” which is set in England, takes viewers on a journey of someone who never wanted to become parent but is forced to take care of an evacuee boy during World War II. The experience has a profound effect on the child and his foster parent in more ways than one, in a story that has a few big surprises. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, “Summerland” also serves as a reminder of how it’s more important to judge a a family by how they treat each other, rather than by society prejudices of what a family is supposed to look like.

The movie begins in 1975, in a rural beachside area of Kent, where reclusive and cranky writer Alice Lamb (played by Penelope Wilton), who’s in her 70s, is working at home on a book, by using a typewriter. She’s temporarily interrupted by two girls, about 8 or 9 years old, who are at her front door, asking for donations to help the elderly. Alice rudely tells the girls before she slams the door on them, “You know how you can help the aged? You can bugger off!”

Astute viewers will notice that that the two little girls who were at Alice’s door have a strong physical resemblance to two women whose close relationship is revealed later in the story. Seeing these two little girls together appears to have triggered some of Alice’s memories, because most the movie then flashes back to Alice (played by Gemma Arterton) when she was in her early 40s, living in the same house, during World War II.

Alice was a reclusive writer back then too. She has an unpleasant demeanor and a moody reputation. People don’t know if she’s going to ignore them or snap at them. And because Alice is a never-married, childless woman of certain age who lives alone, she is the subject of a lot of the town’s gossip, with some of the townspeople believing that she might be a witch. A few of the residents have given her the unflattering nickname “The Beast of the Beach,” which is what they call Alice behind her back.

It’s revealed later in the story that Alice (who has no siblings) doesn’t seem to have any close family members or friends. Her mother isn’t really mentioned, but Alice’s father played a huge role in her life by encouraging her to follow her dreams. Alice’s father died when she was a child, and Alice was devastated by this loss.

Alice isn’t just a cantankerous eccentric. She seems to go out of her way to insult or hurt people. For example, she goes into a candy shop and sees that a little girl wants to buy some chocolate, but the girl’s mother says no because they can’t afford it, Alice buys the chocolate that the child wants. But instead of generously giving the chocolate to the little girl, Alice keeps the chocolate for herself and smirks outside when she can hear the little girl crying in dismay inside the shop.

It’s made abundantly clear that Alice doesn’t like children. And so, she’s very shocked when a boy in his early teens is placed into her care, despite her protests. The boy’s name is Frank (played by Lucas Bond), he’s an evacuee from London, and Alice is told that she received a letter from the foster-care system saying that she was expected to take care of him. Alice claims she never received the letter.

Alice tries to come up with excuses not take the child into her care, but the foster-care system is overwhelmed, and Alice is told she has no choice to take Frank until they can find another foster home for him. Frank’s father is serving in the military during the war, while his mother is still in London. Frank’s mother sent Frank away for his safety, since London was the target of intense bombing at the time.

During Frank’s first evening at Alice’s house, she treats him in an annoyed and dismissive manner. For dinner, she plops down raw food on a plate and says, “You don’t expect me to cook for you. There’s the stove.” At night, she doesn’t really care if Frank will sleep well, and she doesn’t do anything to make him feel comfortable. When Frank tells her that he usually has a glass of milk before he goes to sleep, Alice ignores him.

Upon his arrival in Kent, Frank is enrolled in a school called St. Nicholas, where the kindly headmaster Mr. Sullivan (played by Tom Courtenay) provides some comic relief to the story because of his sometimes befuddled manner. During Frank’s first class session at the school, teacher Mrs. Bassett (played by Jessica Gunning) tells everyone to be nice to Frank when she introduces him to the students in the class. Mrs. Bassett assigns a seat next to an unfriendly girl named Edie Corey (played by Dixie Egerickx), who treats Frank like an unwelcome outsider.

When Mrs. Bassett says that Frank and Edie have to be class partners, Edie tells Frank, “I don’t believe in partners or sharing. I’m an individualist. I’m a maverick. Mavericks are free thinkers.”

Edie’s personality is basically a lot like Alice’s. And so, later in the movie, when Edie and Alice first meet, they seem to recognize these unpleasant traits in each other and clash later during a crucial part of the story. Edie also has an additional prejudice against Alice because Edie’s grandmother Margot (played by Siân Phillips) is one of the townspeople who thinks that Alice is a witch.

Edie and Alice eventually warm up to Frank, who is an inquisitive and amiable child, although understandably feeling anxious about when he’ll be able to see his parents again. Alice gradually opens up to Frank about her spiritual beliefs (she’s a pagan and an atheist), her interests (writing, reading and looking for mirages) and her love life (she says she loved someone once, but it was a long time ago). Unlike other people, Frank is not judgmental over Alice being a spinster with no children, so she appreciates that he seems to have an open mind.

Alice’s love affair is shown in flashbacks throughout the film. Alice met Vera (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love of her life, when they were both attending Oxford University in the 1920s. They had an instant connection and become close very quickly.

Vera and Alice also lived together, but they kept their romance a secret because homosexuality was considered very taboo in that time and place. And so, Alice and Vera pretended to the world that they were platonic roommates. However, Vera and Alice had very different visions of their future.

Alice was more inclined to want to live openly as a lesbian couple, while Vera was still very much closeted. What ultimately drove them apart was Vera’s desire to become a mother, which Vera said was more important to her than anything else—even more important than her relationship with Alice. It’s for this reason that Vera broke up with Alice and walked out of Alice’s life.

This heartbreak puts into better context why Alice is so embittered about love and seems repulsed by the idea of taking care of a child. But as Alice and Frank get to know each other, they both realize that they’ve grown more attached to each other than they thought they would be. And they start to learn that being a good parent doesn’t mean that you have to be heterosexual and married.

When Frank and Alice start to talk about heaven, Alice tells Frank that “heaven was made up to make Christians feel better.” She says that if heaven were real, what about the people who died before Christianity existed? “Where did their souls go?” she asks Frank, who can’t answer the question. Alice tells Frank that does sort of believe in a celestial place called Summerland, which she describes as a “pagan heaven” that isn’t based on religion but a peaceful state of mind.

And one day, when Frank discovers an old music album of Alice’s and asks if they can play the album, she snaps angrily at him and tells him now. She says the album was a gift from a female friend she used to have. Based on her emotionally raw reaction, Frank can tell that this album has brought back some painful memories.

Frank astutely guesses that the album was a gift from the “past love” Alice told him about on another day. When Alice asks Frank, “Do you think it’s strange if a woman loved another woman?” When Frank says no, Alice bursts into tears at his unconditional acceptance.

Alice then tells him that most people think that same-sex love is wicked: “They think it’s a sin and we should burn in hell.” Frank replies, “It’s not as bad as marrying someone you don’t like.” And then it’s Alice’s turn to correctly guess something about Frank’s life: Frank’s parents do not have a happy marriage.

“Summerland” doesn’t clutter the story with a lot of unnecessary characters. The movie shows Alice and Frank’s relationship evolving in ways that are sometimes sweet, sometimes uncomfortable, but emotionally realistic, for the most part. Arterton’s Alice is the center of the movie, which she carries quite well, because the actress understands that it’s not about making Alice likeable but making her believable.

As foster child Frank, Bond does a very good acting job, since Frank is the person who gets Alice to take a hard look at herself and face some of the issues that she’s been hiding underneath her gruff exterior. Frank also learns some harsh lessons about life during his time with Alice. “Summerland” has some moments that blatantly pull at people’s heartstrings, but if people look beyond the film’s sappy moments, there’s an impactful message about being open to change and finding love in unexpected places.

IFC Films released “Summerland” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on July 31, 2020.