Thursday 3 November 2016

Movie Review: The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

A school drama with a difference, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie is an engrossing study of surreptitious manipulation in all its forms. The film moves in unexpected directions, and builds forceful momentum powered by an exceptional Maggie Smith performance.

Edinburgh, 1932. Miss Jean Brodie (Smith) is an unmarried teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. Having lost the love of her life in the dying days of the Great War, Jean presents herself as a superior teacher, in her prime, dedicated to exposing "her girls" to the arts, culture, beauty and her version of the truth. The students currently falling under her influence include the beautiful Jenny (Diane Grayson), the smart Sandy (Pamela Franklin), and the tentative, stuttering Mary (Jane Carr).

Jean is involved in romantic relationships with two fellow teachers, but is unable to commit to either one. Her real love is art teacher and artist Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), but he is married with many kids and is only interested in the thrill of the affair. Music teacher Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson) is more available, but Jean sees him as a boring second choice. Meanwhile, the school's headmistress Emmeline Mackay (Celia Johnson) is growing wary of Jean's undue influence on the girls. As the Brodie girls grow up and start to move into early adulthood, Jean's influence resonates through their young lives, while the rumblings of emerging fascism across Europe unleash disturbing tendencies in Miss Brodie.

A play adaptation directed by Ronald Neame and written for the screen by Jay Presson Allen, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie initially presents itself as a female version of 1967's To Sir, With Love. Jean Brodie appears to be a principled and inspirational teacher, rising above the doldrums of a routine curriculum to turn her students into something better. They reciprocate with deep admiration, building a self-sustaining circle of affection to escape the grey expectations of the school's administration.

But this is a film with a clever feint. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie's intent is to explore dangers lurking beneath superficial female displays of nurturing, and the drama slowly, almost imperceptibly, but ever so surely, steers towards dark corners. What lies beneath the central character's seemingly philanthropic behaviour is a rare selfish streak, and Neame expertly peels the onion layers to reveal a poisonous core where lifelong heart and mind battles are fought in classrooms and bedrooms.

Presson Allen surrounds Jean Brodie with other women old and young, and they are no less calculating. Miss Mackay's mission in life is focused on ridding Marcia Blaine School of Miss Brodie, and what starts as a clash between old and modern transforms into an existential battle of wills between two educators using other people as weapons. Meanwhile, Sandy matures from girl to young woman and joins the arena where deviousness rules. Taught at the feet of Brodie, Sandy has learned well and emerges as a couterpoint to her mentor.

Maggie Smith delivers a spectacular performance, full of righteous self-aggrandization disguised as benevolence. Pamela Franklin and Celia Johnson hold their own, and form the other two points of the tension triangle. There are men in the film, but while the artist Teddy Lloyd and the well-meaning Gordon Lowther sometimes imagine a level of autonomy, they are in fact caught in overlapping webs of deception woven by the women in their lives.

Two highlight scenes demonstrate the art of verbal warfare. Brodie and Mackay face off in an epic battle of words and wits, Brodie drawing a line in the sand and standing on the edge of it with magnificent impudence. Brodie and Sandy then get their own royal battle, the former student flexing her burgeoning power, and now bursting into her own prime.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting film for a number of reasons. I admit that I was a bit baffled by it when I first watched it...until the third act. Then I got the whole thing. We need the first two acts to understand the impact of the final half hour of the film. And that final half hour is something to see!


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