Friday, June 17, 2011

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) - Ronald Neame

Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) teaches at a private girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is 1932. Her 14-year old students are impressionable, and she is unconventional and eccentric, telling the girls that she is in her prime. "Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life."
Miss Brodie and her class.

It is a somewhat stodgy school, with school head mistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), expecting Brodie to adhere to strict traditional teaching methods and standards. But Brodie is a free spirit and prefers to mold the girls with tales of her time in Italy, and lessons in culture, art and politics, instead of cold arithmetic and science. She has a socialist bent and even admires Mussolini. Her favorite students are known as "Brodie's girls." They sometimes lunch together on the grass outside where she leads them in free discussions of sex and love. The girls worship her, but Mackay naturally sees her as a dangerous rebel who fosters unconventional thinking in the minds of young girls. When Brodie encourages one shy girl, Mary McGregor, to follow her heart, it leads to tragedy when she runs away to join her brother and Franco's forces in Spain. Sandy (Pamela Franklin), one of Brodie's girls, is more perceptive than most. She begins to question whether the teacher they all idolize is past her prime and perhaps not the best role model.

The shy Mary MacGregor gets some poor advice.
Sandy with Miss Brodie.
Maggie Smith is terrific as the complex Brodie, giving one of the best performances of the 1960s. The character is introduced in a splendid opening scene, riding her bike through the narrow, teeming streets of Edinburgh on her way to the school. Her hair is red and she's wearing a purple dress. The rest of the screen is mostly drab shades of grey, and that's largely true for the rest of the film too. Brodie is meant to stand out. And as soon as she speaks, you realize she is different, ostensibly supremely confident, with a rather high opinion of herself. This is a facade, however. Brodie is uncertain in love--having two lovers--and is more talk than substance, choosing to live vicariously through her students. Smith captures the character's vulnerability and hidden emotion. When one of her lovers, the married art instructor Teddy Lloyd, (at the time her real husband), confronts her about her inability to commit, she reacts defensively, trying to mask her insecurity.

The best scene in the film is a highly charged confrontation between Smith and Johnson. The head mistress thinks she finally has the goods on Brodie to force a resignation, but Brodie cleverly outwits her. Johnson leads a solid supporting cast. She is probably best known for her Oscar nominated role as a unrequited lover in David Lean's 1945 film, Brief Encounter. Pamela Franklin debuted in 1960 in The Innocents.

For the most part, Director Neame closely follows the fine source novel by Muriel Spark. He wisely deviates in the time-jumping aspect of the novel, using a straight chronological approach instead, making the film more easy to follow. And in the film, Brodie learns which of her girls betrays her; in the novel she does not.

The melody of the familiar theme song by poet Rod McKuen provides a melancholy background to the quiet scenes of the film. McKuen was the most popular poet of the time, if not the deepest. Listening to it now, more than forty years after the film's release, brings you immediately back to the late 60s and all the turmoil of that time. The British singer Oliver took the song to #2 on the charts.

Jean, Jean, roses are red
All the leaves have gone green
And the clouds are so low
You can touch them, and so
Come out to the meadow, Jean

Jean, Jean, you're young and alive
Come out of your half-dreamed dream
And run, if you will, to the top of the hill
Open your arms, bonnie Jean.

Director Neame was once a collaborator with David Lean and served as producer on Lean's two adaptations of Dickens's: Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

  • Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA (Smith)
  • Best Supporting Actress BAFTA (Johnson)
  • Film nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes
  • Best Supporting Actress nomination BAFTA (Franklin)

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