Keira Knightley on bringing historic story of 'girl power' to the screen in Misbehaviour

Keira Knightley plays a feminist activist who disrupts the Miss World contest in 1970 in the new film Misbehaviour. She talks to Laura Harding about feminism, objectification and wanting to take on more socially conscious roles

Keira Knightley as Sally Alexander in Misbehaviour
Laura Harding

IN 1970, the Miss World competition was held in London and was thrown into chaos when feminist activists staged a protest in the middle of the ceremony.

At the time it was the most-watched TV show on the planet, with more than 100 million viewers, and the stage invasion gave the newly formed Women's Liberation Movement overnight fame.

But the controversy did not end there. When the show resumed, the winner was not the heavily favoured Miss Sweden, Maj Christel Johansson, but Miss Grenada Jennifer Hosten, the first black woman ever to be crowned Miss World.

A new film about those events, Misbehaviour, stars Keira Knightley as one of the ringleaders of the protest, Sally Alexander.

"I didn't know about it before this," she admits.

"I had no idea the Women's Lib had stormed the Miss World competition in 1970, I knew nothing about any of that. I just found it fascinating, I think the fact it's the clash of all of these different points of view and all of these different interesting things happening all at once.

"It's the birth of the Women's Liberation Movement, but equally talking about that intersection between feminism and racism. It was quite unexpected in the way that it was told. I didn't feel like it was preachy. I felt like it really did have a conversation and I think we are having that conversation right now."

Indeed, the intersection of feminism and racism has been a hot button issue in recent years, as the question of how white privilege affects the feminist movement has been more closely examined.

"Isn't it interesting that was 1970 and we are still having the same conversation now and still trying to figure it out?" Knightley says.

"But I think it's the conversation that is important and clearly that was a conversation that stopped happening for about 20 years in the middle there, so I think the fact that we are trying to talk about it, the fact that we are trying to progress and to give women more equal opportunities, can only be a positive thing."

The film deftly shows that progress for women takes more than one form. While the white activists are comparing the competition to a cattle market, the black entrants see how powerful their presence in the competition is, for upending Western standards of beauty and inspiring younger girls.

"There have always been very different ideas," Knightley says, thoughtfully.

"About are you allowed to wear high heels, what about lipstick? Should you be feminine? Should you be more masculine? Should you flaunt your sexuality? Is that, in fact, a form of oppression?

"I think we are still grappling with that. We are still trying to figure out what is a form of self-expression and what is a form of objectification. I think that is an argument that is still being had and that is an argument that this film has.

"On the one hand, the Women's Libbers are saying, 'This is a disgusting show of oppression, this is pure objectification, it is a cattle market', and on the other hand you have several women saying, 'But look, I'm a woman of colour and if other girls see this, that I am here, this is beautiful, then that is an important message. And also this can be a platform for me to do more with my life'.

"They are both right, they are both very interesting points of view and I think it's just nice when you get a film that you can really explore the two sides without judging either of them and without condemning either of them. You can actually listen to the argument."

The role of Alexander is the latest in a string of more politically and socially conscious roles for Knightley (34), starting perhaps with 2018's Colette, about the French author pushed by her husband to write novels under his name. Since then has been Official Secrets, in which she played the British whistleblower Katharine Gun, and The Aftermath, in which she played the wife of a British colonel assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-Second World War reconstruction.

"It would be great if that was an accident, wouldn't it?" Knightley laughs.

"It has been very conscious. I think I've always just tried to do what has interested me at that particular moment and I don't produce the work, I just respond to the scripts that I get sent, and it so happened that over the last couple of years I've been sent more political and politically aware scripts.

"I've been really interested to have those conversations within them. I'm a member of society – having the opportunity to really think about these arguments and really explore them is one of the things I love about my job the most."

And Misbehaviour, helmed by Philippa Lowthorpe, is also the latest in a string of films she has made with female directors, including Lynn Shelton (Say When), Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and Lorene Scafaria (Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World).

"It has always been a conscious thing," she says, "but it's only ever been because I've really liked the projects they've been making. I haven't gone like, 'Ooh, there is a project by a guy but I'm not going to do it because it's a man'.

"It's been an added bonus that it's been a woman and I have always tried to seek out female film-makers whose work I love and I want to work with, so I feel very lucky that I've worked with the women that I have.

"I think it's an interesting time right now. I can't talk for the whole industry but I can say that, 'OK, the last film that I did, which was this one, was directed by a woman, Philippa. The next one that I'm doing is directed by a woman and I'm in negotiations for another by a woman.

"And that's not me going, 'I will only work with female directors', I think it's as an industry it feels very much like everybody is trying to go, 'Wait a minute, we haven't given people the opportunities that other people have been given and that needs to be addressed'."

The Miss World protesters might have been very pleased by that.

:: Misbehaviour is in cinemas now

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access