The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Director: Ronald Neame

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The cinematic landscape is strewn with tales of school days, from the thuggish students in Tom Brown’s School Days and Young Torless to the seriocomic antics of The Trouble with Angels and the Harry Potter series. Then there is the crop of sensitive school teachers in The Corn Is Green and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Finally, we have the ogres of Oleanna, The Browning Version, and in its bubble-headed way, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

Jean Brodie comes from the pen of Muriel Spark, based on her own childhood experiences in a Scottish girls school during the 1930s. Jay Presson Allen, herself a product of the improbably named Miss Hockaday’s School for Young Ladies, turned Spark’s novel into a play, which she adapted here for the screen. Like many stage plays, the drama resolves in a moral lesson of sorts via a lot of declamation and revelation of home truths. This theatrical set ’em up and knock ’em down structure frequently wrecks havoc on the veracity that film can bring to a story; a stagy film not only fails to resolve the problem of “opening up” the proscenium arch to the larger world, but also fails to break through the narrative conventions of theatre.

Jean Brodie does not escape all the staginess Presson Allen infused into her screenplay, but through the complex, Oscar-winning performance of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie and the layered work of Pamela Franklin as her Judas of a student, Sandy, we become deeply enmeshed in the very real and affecting dynamics that motivate the characters in this drama.

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“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life.” So goes the philosophy and practice of Miss Jean Brodie, a self-dramatizing and charismatic teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. She declares her Brodie girls the “crème de la crème,” and has chosen her special set of girls for extra attention and outings: Sandy (Franklin), the dependable one; Mary McGregor (Jane Carr), the stuttering orphan with the possibility of greatness; Jenny (Diane Grayson), the beauty who will be painted many times and have many lovers; and Monica (Shirley Steedman), the scholar.

Miss Brodie’s official subject is history, but she never passes on an opportunity to digress into impassioned reveries on art, literature, love (both spiritual and physical), and heroics. She is a fan of strong leaders, particularly Mussolini and his fascists, and of the notion of dedication. A woman who has broken off an affair with the school’s married art teacher, Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), and who refuses to marry her conventional new lover, music teacher Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson), Miss Brodie declares that she has dedicated her life to her pupils: “I’m a teacher, first, last, always.” Her brightly colored wardrobe, which contrasts with the drab gray/black/white palette of the rest of the faculty, her flamboyant speech and gestures, and her immodest teaching matter and methods have her at odds with the new headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson). Jean dismisses all criticism with the simple (to her) explanation—“I’m in my prime.”

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“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life.” Jean seeks surrogate-mother status to her charges with this hubristic claim. Like many women unable to create the lives they truly want, Jean imagines she can manipulate her students and lovers and live vicariously through their deeds and accomplishments, much as a traditional mother would. She loves Teddy, but knows that as a Catholic, he will never leave his wife and six children; so she attempts to manipulate him into having an affair with Jenny as her stand-in. Gordon would marry her, but to give in to him would not only be a betrayal of her true feelings, but also would take her out of whatever public sphere she has been able to occupy, rob her of her chance at a wider legacy through her students.

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Sandy, disillusioned with Miss Brodie’s manipulations and narcissism, calls her ridiculous. Teddy admonishes her that it is possible to be both ridiculous and magnificent. Indeed it is. In her odd and limited way, Jean has feminist inclinations—wearing what she wants, sleeping with whom she wants, encouraging her students to be the heroes of their own lives. Jean’s championing of Mussolini and Franco sours the milk of admiration toward her to some extent, but when we see what a mealy-mouthed blaggard her true love Teddy is, it’s impossible not to think that her trumpeting of these thugs is a veiled plea for Teddy to grow some balls.

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Of course, we would get nothing of these contradictory-yet-simultaneous emotions and attitudes if Maggie Smith were not so adept at juggling several flaming swords at once. She has the beauty and carriage to pull off the imperious, desirable Jean Teddy can’t get out of his system, the idealism and fiery passion to enthrall her students and inspire rash actions from them, the vulnerability to crumble ever so slightly when she sees her grip isn’t as strong as she thought it was, and the almost-ever-present mask of the consummate narcissist.

It is to the great credit of the cast and director Neame that each character has dimension. Celia Johnson, a great actress, creates an educator and administrator in Miss Mackay who really wants to do what is best for the children in her care. That hers is a conservative line that will produce conventional girls is appropriate for her time and does not reduce her good intentions, even in the eyes of this progressive feminist. Even though I saw Jean as a tragic character, I could not condemn Miss Mackay for having a hand in her demise.

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Gordon Jackson is an enormously appealing actor. I would have married him in a second. But then Jean really only wanted him for sex and to appeal to her vanity about being in her prime. Robert Stephens had a very clichéd character and made the most of him, though I didn’t quite buy his ardor for Jean as true love; it just seemed like lust to me. But Smith fending off his advances, and her withering comment about his endlessly growing family put down to his adherence to the Church of Rome, was a comic wonder to behold. Jane Carr was absolutely winning as the open-faced, open-hearted Mary. I would have liked to have seen more of her character, particularly as a crucial plot development revolves around her and it was hard to know how she got where she did with her underdeveloped through-line.

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For her part, Pamela Franklin seems to physically age before our eyes as she goes from about 13 to 17, from awed amazement that she has been singled out to be in Miss Brodie’s special set to a jealous, resentful young woman whose rather stunted emotional life—which Jean accurately diagnoses to Sandy’s deep discomfort—allows her to disparage a dead classmate as a fool and Brodie as a danger to children. In reality, Miss Brodie wasn’t that much of a free spirit, and a mere teenager with the force of society behind her was more than up to the task of destroying her. Sadly, the final confrontation between Jean and Sandy delivers our obligatory moral lesson in a clichéd and creaky manner. Nonetheless, Jean’s loud, pained shout “Assassin! Assassin!” at Sandy’s small, receding form as she walks into a future among the ruling establishment reverberates long after the final fade.

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/08/2009 to 7:05 pm

    Marilyn,
    Well done. This movie fascinated me when I first saw it at 13. Maggie Smith has been one of my favortite actresses ever since. It hasn’t held up quite as well for me in repeat viewings as an adult, althought I still love the performances of Smith and Pamela Franklin.
    And I would have liked to have seen a lot more of Jane Carr, too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/08/2009 to 7:30 pm

    Thanks, Pat. It was on the other night, and the hubby hadn’t ever seen it. I hadn’t seen it in a while, but it was great to revisit. I really think Smith’s performance is one of the best ever committed to film.

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 12:42 am

    This was in my top ten films when I listed them in the 80s, but faded somewhat when I saw it again and the stage origins crept through. Still an excellent movie, with one of the least appropriate theme songs of all time.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 12:46 am

    I applaud you for reviewing this film, and furthermore for giving it a favorable review. I was so obsessed in 1969 with this film at 15 years old that I effected a Maggie Smith voice and memorized the big confrontation scene word for word with Mrs. McKay. I think I may be able to still pull it off. Ha! Some critics at the time, while praising both Maggie Smith’s electrifying performance, which won her an Oscar in one of the Academy’s most brilliant moments (a huge upset in a year when Liza Minelli was the favorite) and the quiet superlative turn by legend Celia Johnson, took issue with the “politically convoluted” screenplay and the staginess you mention in your review. A vociferous minority also complained about the overly mannered acting by Smith. I read Spark’s work years back, and while there were some changes (again you mention the histrionics here) I thought the film did it consumate justice. I agree with you that Smith’s performance is simply one of the greatest ever committed to film, and likewise I join you in not condemning Mrs. McKay for doing what was safe and sensible. But regardless of the corrupting personality of Jean brodie, who could fail to be moved but her dynamic personality and her big-scene confrontations, which were master-class through and through.
    The Edinburgh locations are used to magnificent effect, and the toad looking staff schoolteachers ring true. Again I must agree with you on the fraudulence of Robert Stephen’s Teddy Lloyd, a spineless turd, though he’s a fine actor, as is Pamela Franklin and Gordon Douglas. (I like what you say there about ‘marrying him in a second! LOL!)
    Your opening lead-in is beautifully written and your reference examples dead on (i.e. GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, THE BROWNING VERSION, YOUNG TORLESS, etc.) I guess of recent films, the most thematically significant correlation as far as character goes would be Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating in DEAD POETS SOCIETY, which borrows from this 1969 film. I would pose to add the original Twilight Zone episode “The Changing of the Guard” with Donald Pleasance which also treads th einspirational schoolteacher genre most persuasively and the excellent THE HISTORY BOYS of a few years back.
    I say Bravo to you for this wondrous descriptive piece, which gives full acknowledgement to a film that has stood up, and one that contains two of the greatest performances by women recoded on film. (Smith and Johnson). I feel like watching it again righ tnow, but it’s way too late.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 12:50 am

    Yeah, Scott is right about the use of the tacky song “Jean,” which was a minor flaw here, but in th elate 60’s and 70’s th efashion was to pollute character-driven films with silly, sentimental songs. ex. the one used in I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER. Oliver made the pop charts with the song as I recall.

  • Rod spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 4:39 am

    Bad theme songs are a common hazard of ’60s films.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    21st/08/2009 to 8:37 am

    I rather like the theme song. It has a wistful quality to it.
    Sam, I’d pay good money to hear you recite that confrontation in a Brodie accent! Thanks so much for the extravagant praise, which is a bit Brodie-esque.
    Syd, honestly, the film still gets me. I think I appreciate Smith’s performance more and more through the years.

  • Phil. spoke:
    23rd/09/2009 to 5:15 pm

    A well thought out and written review. Also many valid points from various commentators. This proves that the plot works on many levels, thus appealing to a wide audience.One of the great films, and a collection of performances, which I think have stood the test of time.
    The theme song is equally good, how can you fault a Rod McKuen/Jacques Bruel collaboration? I think it counters the pesonna of Jean, and portrays the world from Gordon’s viewpoint.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/09/2009 to 5:48 pm

    Thanks for stopping by, Phil, and thanks for the compliment. This is truly a film with legs.

  • Michael spoke:
    18th/12/2010 to 12:46 pm

    I really like the review, but the whole tone of it is, I think, a little too much in Miss Brodie’s corner. You have to remember that she engineered a situation where Rose (Jenny in the film) would sleep with a 40-something-year-old married man (although it was Sandy who did so in the end) and she sent Joyce Emily (Mary in the film) to her death, fighting for the fascists in Spain.

    However, I agree that Maggie Smith’s acting in it is stupendously good. They simply could not have had a better actress to play the part.

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