Over the course of her extensive career, Keira Knightley has garnered a reputation for speaking candidly on everything from her acting career (and the way Hollywood treats women) to her personal life, in particular, the hardships that come with motherhood.
Preparing for the release of her latest film, Misbehaviour, Knightley takes on the role of Sally Alexander, the real-life activist who famously stormed the Royal Albert Hall during the 1970 Miss World pageant with a gang of other members of the Women’s Liberation Movement, protesting its underlying chauvinism with ink-squirting toy guns and flour bombs.
At the time, Miss World was the most-watched television program on the planet with more than 100 million viewers. Claiming that beauty competitions demeaned women, the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement achieved overnight fame after invading the stage and disrupting the live broadcast. Not only that, when the show resumed, the result caused an uproar when the winner was not the Swedish favourite but Jennifer Hosten as Miss Grenada, the first Black woman to be crowned Miss World—played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
In a matter of hours, a global audience had witnessed the patriarchy driven from the stage and the Western ideal of beauty turned on its head. Its interwoven themes of feminism and racism make it unsurprising Knightley was so attracted to the role—not to mention, the film was written, directed and produced by an all-female team of creatives.
“We’re all hypocrites,” Knightley told the Financial Times of her decision to take on the role, nothing the fact she herself has participated in Hollywood’s own version of pageantry. “I came into this completely on the side of the women’s libbers. Totally. Completely. Yes, 100 per cent, this is disgusting. And yet, I am somebody that makes my living, most of my money, from being a model and from doing red carpets.”
Knightley, who welcomed daughters Edie in 2015 and Delilah in 2019, has gained attention in recent years for her candid essays on motherhood and feminism, blasting the impossible standards placed on women as well as the double standards faced by working mums.
One particular piece of writing, ‘The Weaker Sex’, which appeared in the book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies), the actor detailed her own post-birth experience and drew comparisons to Kate Middleton and her “perfect” appearance just hours after giving birth. “Hide. Hide our pain, our bodies splitting, our breasts leaking, our hormones raging. Look beautiful. Look stylish, don’t show your battleground,” it read.
But while Misbehaviour may not directly tackle the still complicated relationship society has with motherhood, it is a powerful look to wider issues of feminism that still exist today. Particularly, the film’s ability to highlight the radical difference between the privileged white protestors and the women of colour competing in the pageant, who see it as a means of gaining representation.
“It doesn’t judge,” Knightley says of the film. “It doesn’t tell you what to think. It’s dealing with feminism, and intersectional privilege and racism. It felt very current, and yet it was 50 years ago.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw was also attracted to the film’s “intersectional” exploration of the Miss World Competition, referring to a powerful line her character says to Knightley’s during the film: “If I could, I’d wish to have your opportunities in life.”
“Meaning, to be able to rebel the way you’re rebelling, to throw flour bombs—for me, that’s a luxury because I’m fighting my fight, and my fight is to be seen,” Mbatha-Raw told W Magazine ahead of the film’s release. “To legitimately be a winner of this competition, to be seen, to be represented. You can’t underestimate the power in that.”
Watch the Misbehaviour trailer below:
Misbehaviour premieres in Australian Cinemas from November 26.