The cheerfully one-dimensional “bad behavior” puts a smiley face on female rage. Comedy spotted with seriousness, it revisits a 1970 feminist demonstration against the Miss World pageant in London. Bright and emphatically upbeat, the film has period polish, swaying detail, and a sympathetic cast led by Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jessie Buckley. Like most commercial films on feminist history, however, it also has a toothless take on protest and empowerment that’s doomed to fail its subject matter because its directors don’t (can’t) take risk making the public uncomfortable.
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the film personalizes its story with a handful of manageable characters, including Sally Alexander (a fine Knightley), an academic. In short, bouncy scenes, she is intelligent and ambitious, loved by her family but upset by her sexist colleagues, which leads her to join the emerging women’s liberation movement. Her apparent counterpart is Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), aka Miss Grenada, who arrives amid a sorority of laughing contestants. Jennifer doesn’t have much to do or say, but Mbatha-Raw makes it clear that the character has an inner life, with distant looks that you hope to predict a more interesting movie is on the horizon.
The two women are ready for dialectical pleasure but are largely separated on parallel tracks. The film – the screenplay is by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe – establishes two opposing camps: one populated by the contest folks, the other by feminists, including Buckley’s Jo Robinson, a live feed. While the men linger in the background on Team Libbers, they take a starring role in Team Pageant because the filmmakers seem to think audiences need to remember that sexist men can be, well, sexist. So rather than deep, revealing looks at the contestants’ lives, there’s plenty of the show’s host, Bob Hope (an affable Greg Kinnear with a fake schnoz).
Lowthorpe spends a tiring time on the comedy of male buffoonery. The marquee clown is Hope, who was featured in the opening via side cut with Sally, and comes with his own aggrieved wife (Lesley Manville, adding a bitter flavor to Ms. Hope). The most cartoonish jester, however, is Eric (Rhys Ifans), who, along with his wife, Julia (Keeley Hawes), runs the contest. It’s a bit of fun watching Ifans swan in a pageant crown and cape when he shows the contestants how to walk on stage. The tee-hee-hee suitors and you could too, although there’s nothing very funny about the way the movie vigorously attempts soft pedal sexual exploitation.