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"Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crme de la crme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life."
Those are the words of Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), teacher, spoken ritualistically every time she has a new group of girls to take under her wing. As the amazing narrative of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) unfolds, those words take on a chilling new meaning.
It is the thirties and Jean Brodie, a teacher in her prime, takes in her new class at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. She gathers her girls around, clearly picks her favorites and lets them know that they are the "crme de la crme." While she is ostensibly their teacher, tasked with teaching them history and literature, she instead teaches them of life, or so she thinks.
Sandy, Monica, Jenny and Mary McGregor are her chosen four and she encourages them to experience life by attending concerts and the theatre and seeking love. Miss Brodie speaks of conquerors and dictators like Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco with romantic devotion, encouraging her girls to feel the same. Unfortunately, this method of teaching is frowned upon by the school and its headmistress, Miss Mackay (played beautifully by Celia Johnson), who isn't fond of Brodie at all. The problem is, Brodie has tenure so getting her out of the school will take something extraordinary.
At first, Miss Mackay simply demands Miss Brodie's resignation since rumors of her romance with fellow teacher, Mr. Lowther (Gordon Jackson), abound in the school and send the wrong message (and girls are even forging comical notes between the two). In a brilliant scene of confrontation that both foreshadows a later scene between the two and another between her and Sandy, Miss Brodie effortlessly threatens Miss Mackay with trouble and lawsuits should Miss Mackay pursue the matter any further ("If scandal is to your taste, Miss Mackay, I shall give you a feast!").
Of course, the rumors of her relationship with Mr. Lowther are true but Brodie has no intention of dignifying the relationship with either the truth or commitment. Despite Mr. Lowther's devotion to her, Miss Brodie still pines for Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), the art teacher with whom she once had an affair. Now, she sets up her girls with him, pegging Jenny as his newest lover, rather than admit her feelings for him and he for her. Sandy, she hopes, will be her spy, relaying back all the information about Teddy and Jenny's romance.
All of this leads to a climactic clash between teacher and student about the limits of personal involvement a teacher can have with her students and when she must take responsibility for the consequences of such actions. The scene, between Brodie and Sandy, played wonderfully by Pamela Franklin, is a riveting confrontation that stands as one of the best of its kind in all of cinema.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is centered around one of the great performances of the sixties in Maggie Smith's portrayal of Jean Brodie. It is a cold and terrifying portrayal of an arrogant teacher certain that she has done no wrong. Smith does not hold back in her arched speech, giving each inflection its own dramatic moment, every syllable a knowing glance. When she is wounded, the pain hangs on her face with a terrible weight. And when she is threatened her eyes grow focused, angry and penetrating. Her Jean Brodie is a big, bold, dramatic statement on the hubris of controlling others to satisfy one's own whims. It is a masterpiece of acting.
In the teacher/student sub-genre of film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie stands out. It is markedly different from what came before (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1939 & 1969) and just as different from the plethora that came after (Dead Poets Society , Dangerous Minds , Stand and Deliver ), and that difference works heavily in its favor. Modern audiences expecting another feel-good story where the persecuted teacher is vindicated by his or her students may be quite surprised at where this story goes and how far from heroic its lead character becomes. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has no interest in examining the iconoclast in revolt against the status quo. Rather, it plunges head first into an exploration of the dominant and the weak and the battles they fight every day.
The cast is unusually good. Given how outstanding Maggie Smith is, one might expect the rest of the cast to pale in comparison but, in fact, they shine. Smith's scenes with Celia Johnson are nothing short of gripping and Pamela Franklin, a young actress who would spend most of her career in television, stands so strongly against Smith, it's amazing more did not come from this role. For reasons unknown to history and defying all logic and reason, she was denied a nomination for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar® despite nominations and wins elsewhere for her magnificent performance. Indeed, the expertise of her acting is crucial, for if the audience cannot accept Sandy, finally, as a worthy adversary of Miss Brodie, the whole story collapses. Their final confrontation is not just a fascinating battle of wills between two dominant characters but a fascinating master class on brilliant, complementary acting as well.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, adapted liberally from the book by Muriel Spark and the further play adaptation by Jay Presson Allen, is one of the best British films of the decade. It is as captivating today as it was upon its release and its two central performances by Maggie Smith and Pamela Franklin are both stirring and mesmerizing. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the crme de la crme.
Producers: James Cresson, Robert Fryer
Director: Ronald Neame
Writer: Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Muriel Spark
Music: Rod McKuen
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Editor: Norman Savage
Art Director: Brian Herbert
Costume Design: Joan Bridge, Elizabeth Haffenden
Cast: Maggie Smith (Jean Brodie), Robert Stephens (Teddy Lloyd), Pamela Franklin (Sandy), Gordon Jackson (Gordon Lowther), Celia Johnson (Miss Mackay), Diane Grayson (Jenny), Jane Carr (Mary McGregor).
By Greg Ferrara