Does anyone still watch televised beauty pageants? Some must do: The likes of Miss America and Miss World presumably aren’t being broadcast to a global audience of ghosts, whatever their declining presence in the popular imagination. Yet for years now, the pageant industry has felt like a dead woman walking and waving, steadily losing TV ratings and youth appeal, however many concessions it makes to more progressive standards of femininity: Banning the swimsuit round might help, but something larger is being denuded anyway. A bouncy fact-based Britcom in the “Made in Dagenham” vein, Philippa Lowthorpe’s “Misbehaviour” marks the point at which the worm turned. Revisiting the protest-blighted 1970 Miss World contest from the alternating perspective of participants and opposing activists, it’s cheery, easy comfort viewing, but for all its gaudy, kitschtastic period trappings, there’s little nostalgia underpinning it.
Instead, “Misbehaviour” says good riddance to a bad era in the brightest, politest way possible: too politely, perhaps, if you’re seeking a feminist comedy that actually lives up to the raucous promise of its title. But this is an unabashedly commercial crowdpleaser, hoping to draw cross-generational groups of women and allies to theaters when it’s cannily released in the U.K. this Friday through Disney, just in time for the local version of Mothers’ Day. (It could as easily have gone the week before, timed to International Women’s Day, though “Military Wives” took that spot: The two would make a cozy double feature.) A Stateside release is unconfirmed, though the star power of Keira Knightley, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jessie Buckley in the principal roles makes for an easily exportable package.
How the narrative is divvied up between them, however, is the most glaring issue with a screenplay by Rebecca Frayn (“The Lady”) and Gaby Chiappe (the lovely “Their Finest”) that attempts to treat the beauty queens caught up in an icky misogynistic system with strenuous fairness — but winds up giving even Jennifer Hosten (Mbatha-Raw), the Grenadian contestant who blazed her own trail by becoming the first black Miss World amid the 1970 commotion, somewhat skin-deep treatment.
Evenly as the film’s sympathies are spread, it sits most comfortably in the consciousness of protagonist Sally Alexander (Knightley), a middle-class Londoner and second-wave feminist trying to shake off the cobwebs of a conservative upbringing by enrolling as a mature history student — to the consternation of her starchy mother Evelyn (Phyllis Logan), who urges Sally to settle for being a dedicated homemaker to her boyfriend and young daughter. Disheartened by the fusty sexism she encounters at university, Sally instead finds a like mind in Jo Robinson (Buckley), the outspoken working-class ringleader of a rebellious feminist activist group.
After her initial prim misgivings, the bookish Sally is drawn to the contented, communal sackcloth squalor of the women’s commune, where they hang out, smoke pot and plot their various demonstrations — with a planned invasion of the regressive Miss World contest, soon to be held in London, next in line. Wholly unaware of their plans, foppish pageant chief Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) blusters on with preparations for the so-called “cattle show,” securing Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, amusing if distinctly un-Hope-like) as host before a flurry of international contestants, high on excitement and hairspray fumes, jet into town.
Among them are icily blonde Miss Sweden Maj Christel Johansson (Clara Rosager), the bookies’ favorite, and two far less fancied contestants of color: Jennifer Hosten and Pearl Janssen (Loreece Harrison, an underused delight), a wide-eyed ingenue competing as “Miss Africa South,” a hastily selected second South African candidate intended to ward off anti-apartheid protesters. Both underprivileged women have dreams that a pageant victory could make reality — if, that is, the all-white British women’s protest doesn’t sabotage the entire enterprise.
That’s a potentially rich dramatic conflict, yet the broad-brush script never quite squares that circle, in part because it gives us scant access to the inner life of every character but Sally. A radiant Mbatha-Raw plays the Grenadian underdog with good grace and good humor, but we yearn to see more of her when the pageant lights are off; Buckley, always a welcome, film-jolting presence, can’t do much to make Jo more than a jangly bag of attitude and slogans. Knightley, likeable as ever, sportingly shoulders proceedings, but seems set up to play the least intriguing figure here. A late-film tête-à-tête between her and Mbatha-Raw, far the film’s best scene, offers a taste of the seething, underlying complexities absent elsewhere.
These shortcuts and shortcomings are unlikely to trouble many in the film’s core audience, and nor do they ultimately scupper “Misbehaviour” as a straightforward, spirited message movie, particularly by the time the unabashedly manipulative but effective old technique of bringing the actors’ real-life counterparts onto screen comes tearily into play. It’s all colorfully handled by TV pro Lowthorpe, following up her big-screen debut “Swallows and Amazons” with similar smooth, impersonal aplomb, while the below-the-line credits — particularly Charlotte Walter’s bold, explosion-in-a-vintage-store costumes — all opt for springy polish over grainy authenticity. Still, “Misbehaviour” does point up the difficulties of being a formula film about fighting the power: Effervescent and eager to please, even when handling tricky intersectional politics of gender, race and class, the film could stand to act out just a little bit more.