M, 106 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

When organisers were getting ready for the Miss World contest in 1970, there were plans afoot to gatecrash the televised event and spoil their party. A group of radical young feminists in another part of London were hatching a plot to disrupt it as the winner was announced with the world media watching.

Misbehaviour, based on true events, is about the main players in the story. The group of radical young women and some of the key contestants, and others too. American comedian Bob Hope who officiated and the British entrepreneur behind it, Eric Morley.

It is delicious to watch the two opposing forces, the organisers and the disrupters, on a collision course during the set-up in the early scenes.

I thought the very versatile Rhys Ifans might have done more with his role as Morley, but thought again. As a recent owner of the sister contest in the US, Miss Universe, Donald Trump has probably already done enough to besmirch the name of men in the beauty business.

Girls misbehaving stop the world

The male characters are fascinating, especially the pageant host Bob Hope. Greg Kinnear is outstanding as the very dubious king of comedy, an embodiment of 1970s male chauvinism. A flagrant womaniser who thrived on the opportunities afforded him, but the Misbehaviour story belongs to the women.

To the protesters who got themselves arrested and to the contestants. In particular the bolshie favourite Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager), the winner Miss Grenada (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and the blow-in, Miss (Black) South Africa (Loreece Harrison).

As Sally Alexander, a single mother and mature age student at University College London, Keira Knightley has the lead role.

A few early scenes explain her personal journey and convey the tenor of the times. The way the interview for a university place is conducted by a panel of male academics, and her experience in tutorials once she gets in.  Sexist foibles were not confined to men in show biz.

Serendipity connects Sally with a collective of radical young women who deface and subvert advertising posters. They turn them into feminist messages of protest, when they’re not producing their own campaign posters demanding equal rights for women. One of the women is Jo Robinson, played by the terrific Irish actor, Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things).

It’s Knightley’s character, a single mother with a male partner, who supplies the narrative focus and the glue between the world of academia and radical collective that believes that television is an arm of state oppression.

Women’s liberation was, of course, one of many activist movements afoot in 1970. The movement against the Vietnam War was huge, and the anti-apartheid movement was big too.

The year, 1970, was pivotal for people of colour in the beauty pageant too. Not only did the Miss World organisers have angry feminists to deal with, they had activist Peter Hain (played here by Luke Thompson) to answer to as well.

There is a small scene in which the white South African anti-apartheid protestor who had spearheaded the anti-apartheid movement collars Morley. He wants to know why there is no black South African contestant at Miss World, to reflect the reality that 80 percent of the country’s population was black. Morley quickly sends South Africa a request for a black contestant to stand alongside the white woman already in attendance.

makes its points with sharp writing, spirited performances and a light touch

The year that the Miss World contest was besieged by feminist protests was the year that the first black woman won the contest. It makes for an interesting exchange in the ladies powder room between Knightley’s Sally Alexander and Mbatha-Raw’s Miss Grenada, a dignified Jennifer Hosten.

At the film’s conclusion, the filmmakers include present-day cameos of Hosten and other key characters. It’s good to see that the experiences in 1970 did no one any professional or personal harm.

Many of the key creatives on Misbehaviour were women, from the producers to the co-writers, Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe. Director Philippa Lowthorpe has a background in directing documentaries and in television film (The Other Boleyn Girl) and episodes of popular series (The Crown and Call the Midwife).

It’s an all-girl show, in front of the camera and behind it. And it’s a really good story that makes its points with sharp writing, spirited performances and a light touch.

First published in the Canberra Times on 27 November 2020

Motherless Brooklyn

Pet project made with a free hand

M, 144 minutes

4 stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Edward Norton has had a lot of time to think this pet project over. In the late 1990s, around the time that he was first recognised for his gifts as an actor in Primal Fear, he acquired the rights to the award-winning book on which it is based.

It’s said that the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016 gave the production the nudge it needed to get it going.

Jonathan Lethem’s novel, Motherless Brooklyn, is set in the late 1990s. Norton has however shifted it back to the 1950s, when everything seemed calm, prosperous and hunky-dory, but lots was going on beneath the surface.

The shift to the fifties also offers an excuse for integrating the narrative into the glorious heyday of gumshoe detective movies and the thrillers that we have come to know as film noir. Low lighting, clouds of cigarette smoke, men in sharp suits, fedoras and heavy coats, and women in tight-waisted dresses, heels and silk stockings. That sort of thing.

Mid-last century was probably a more testing time for people with a disability too, even in its milder forms. People like Norton’s character, Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, a nervous disorder that causes involuntary physical and verbal tics. In his hands, Lionel’s character has a dignity that a less skilful actor might not have achieved.

Neither the pet tabby that he shares his apartment with, nor colleagues at work are at all bothered by this disability. Nor is Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the woman he begins to form a relationship with, but Lionel feels compelled to call himself a ‘freak show’.

Bruce Willis makes a brief appearance in early scenes as Frank Minna, boss of the firm of private investigators where Lionel works. Lionel may have a disorder, but he has a photographic memory, an invaluable asset in a gumshoe.

Minna is bundled off one day by a bunch of nameless heavies and shot, but he manages to leave Lionel with a few clues as to who is responsible before he expires in emergency.

It seems Minna was on to something, something big. Sensing this, Lionel makes it his mission to find out who killed him. The trail leads Lionel right to the top, the Borough Authority and its plans for urban renewal spearheaded by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

In 1950s New York, urban renewal was another term for destroying neighbourhoods to make way for development. Forcing minority communities out of their homes then demolishing them to make way for the buildings and infrastructure that were part of Randolph’s grand vision. New Yorkers will recognise in this character a thinly disguised Robert Moses, a controversial figure at the time.

Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) confronts Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton)

One of the worst examples of destructive urban renewal was the destruction in 1963 of Pennsylvania Station. It was a magnificent beaux-arts building like its sister station, Grand Central, before it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden and other more lucrative amenity. For a key scene, it is reconstructed here, in VFX and physical sets.

No doubt New Yorkers will also spot dozens of familiar locations here, in this salute to New York and all its boroughs. The period look seems authentic, though sharp eyed citizens will be able to spot anything that isn’t, a production designer’s and art director’s nightmare.

Alec Baldwin, these days a Saturday Night Live regular who delivers a biting satirical portrait of President Trump, is also great as Randolph.  The self-appointed city commissioner who runs everything and does anything he wants, as he tells Lionel one day in a lecture on the meaning of power. Randolph is however a more interesting and complex character at close quarters than we would expect.

Motherless Brooklyn is such an ambitious undertaking. A big city story that champions the people versus the developers, a really important, ongoing subject that impacts everyone.

I would have expected more indignation and less indulgence in the telling of such a story. Motherless Brooklyn is very well-written, performed and impeccably produced but it has been allowed to run to too long. It would have been better with a tight edit, but ,as writer, director and producer, Edward Norton had a free hand to do things his own way.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 February 2020, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 MHz

*Featured image: Edward Norton as gumshoe Lionel Essrog