Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The (1969)

“I am always impressed by Ms. Brodie’s girls — in one way or another.”

Synopsis:
A free-spirited, Mussolini-loving teacher (Maggie Smith) — who’s had an affair with a married artist (Robert Stephens) and is currently dating her school’s music teacher (Gordon Jackson) — attempts to teach “her girls” — including dependable Sandy (Pamela Franklin), beautiful Jenny (Diane Grayson), sentimental Monica (Shirley Steedman), and stuttering Mary (Jane Carr) — to recognize their own greatness; but when a fantastical letter written by one of her students catches the attention of the school’s headmistress (Celia Johnson), Smith’s career and reputation are on the line.

Genres:

Review:
Maggie Smith won an Oscar for her leading role in this adaptation of Muriel Spark’s novel, inhabiting a complicated female protagonist who stays true to herself yet remains a highly questionable influence on her students’ lives. Indeed, the primary power of this story is how easily we’re drawn into Smith’s world — who wouldn’t be rooting for a passionate, empowering, professional, unmarried woman in the early 1960s? — then given a sucker-punch to the gut as we realize her narcissistic ideology is leading to undeniably toxic outcomes. The nature of ideologies, of course, is that they’re so often taken as obvious and true — and when one is in any position of power and moral authority (as teachers are), they’re oh-so-easily transmitted. Franklin plays a pivotal role in this story as well, representing another type of powerful female — one who refuses to play along with the label she’s been assigned by her elder, and who is willing to take action on behalf of justice, albeit justice heavily tinged with resentment. The remaining supporting performances are also spot-on, from the various other girls in Jean Brodie’s “in-group”, to Johnson as her supervisor, to Stephens as her temperamental lover and Jackson playing (coincidentally?) a chap named “Gordon”. While Peary argues in Alternate Oscars that Smith’s “performance is too mannered and theatrical for [his] tastes”, it’s difficult to imagine any other actress embodying this troubling literary icon.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie
  • Pamela Franklin as Sandy
  • Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd
  • Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay

Must See?
Yes, as a compelling drama with strong performances.

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One Response to “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The (1969)”

  1. A must-see, for reasons brought out in the accurate and well-observed assessment given (which is why I have little to add, personally). It’s especially noteworthy for its storyline, for Ronald Neame’s direction and, yes, for the effective performances – beginning with Smith’s flawless portrait of a singularly deluded woman.

    I’ve seen this film a number of times (most recently when it received a blu-ray release) and have, thus, discovered that it holds up rather well on repeat viewings, spaced apart.

    Not that awards matter all that much (as I often say) but, if it had been up to me, I would have given Jane Fonda the Oscar that year – for ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ To this day, I think her ‘Gloria’ is Fonda’s best (and most complex) performance, layered in a way unlike anything else she ever did. (Although I also like her performance in ‘Klute’ – which brought her the Oscar 2 years later – I’ve always thought that was a consolation award.)

    Jean Brodie was Smith’s real breakthrough role and audiences were, understandably, bowled over by her acting style and charisma. She had ‘arrived’. Since then… we have seen her do endless variations of the same ‘persona’. She’s very effective at what she does and is a particular master of timing (esp. in comedy). For her – I think – Brodie happened to be the perfect role at the perfect moment in time. One of those sort-of instant crowd-pleasing parts that became as infectious as Brodie’s own manner and teaching style.

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