Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Truth, Beauty and Fascism


primeofmissjeanbrodieWhen Muriel Spark attended James Gillespie’s School for Girls in Edinburgh in the 1930s, her most memorable teacher, the one who would inspire her to become a writer, was Christina Kay. This was a complex figure, one who would hang posters of Renaissance paintings on the wall, but also idealize the Fascist leaders of the day, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco. There was something special about Miss Kay and Spark captured it in the following statement, “What filled our minds with wonder and made Christina Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened.” In this screen adaptation of Spark’s most famous novel, Maggie Smith certainly is all that.

At the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh, Jean Brodie (Smith) is an unconventional teacher who believes in teaching her young students the value of beauty, the arts and culture. Four girls in particular are at the center of her attention; Sandy, Monica, Jenny and Mary are known as the Brodie Set. Over the next few years, Jean is torn between two men who are both infatuated with her – Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), the married art teacher who was once her lover, and Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson), the music teacher who would love to marry her. At the same time, Jean’s girls are influenced by her in unpredictable ways and the conservative headmistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), is looking for ways to get rid of her…

A child of her time
This is the best kind of character study, one that takes the personality traits of an individual and makes them part of a bigger picture. In one way, Jean Brodie is certainly a child of her time. She looks up to Fascist leaders and constantly tells her students to admire them and the cause they’re fighting for, which leads to tragic consequences later in the story. Apparently, she’s too naive to realize what fascism means. This may be hard to believe considering how clever she is at times when dealing with Miss Mackay, but also because in other areas she’s far ahead of her time.

The headmistress only believes in hard knowledge, while Jean understands that students need to be motivated and inspired, and considers the arts worthy of study at least as much as more traditional subjects. She always imagines herself to be in the prime of her life, a first-rate educator, admired by her students, desired by men… but she’s incapable of understanding herself and what her actions might lead to. It’s not difficult to draw comparisons to many others in the 1930s, men and women who would see what they believed to be simple political beliefs become the cause of war and despair.

Smith brings this person to life with a majestic presence, aided by Johnson (in her last film role) and Pamela Franklin as the student who is sexually inspired by Miss Brodie but turns on her. Ronald Neame directed the film in a straightforward manner that seems the most inspired by Jay Presson Allen’s stage version of Spark’s novel; emphasis lies on the witty and sharp dialogue, combined with closeups that really put the performances on display.

There’s a dreamy quality to the song “Jean” (popularized by the artist Oliver), which plays over the end credits, but it works primarily as bittersweet irony.

Many sacrifices and changes have been made in the process from novel to play to movie; the final results may not be to everyone’s taste (the flash-forwards and religious themes have been discarded), but it’s nevertheless far from diluted. Frank and spellbinding, the film lives on.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 1969-U.S.-Britain. 116 min. Color. Produced by Robert Fryer. Directed by Ronald Neame. Screenplay, Play: Jay Presson Allen. Novel: Muriel Spark. Music, Song: Rod McKuen (“Jean”). Cast: Maggie Smith (Jean Brodie), Robert Stephens (Teddy Lloyd), Pamela Franklin (Sandy), Gordon Jackson, Celia Johnson, Jane Carr.

Trivia: Julie Andrews was allegedly considered for the lead role. Remade as a miniseries in 1978.

Oscar: Best Actress (Smith). Golden Globe: Best Original Song. BAFTA: Best Actress (Smith), Supporting Actress (Johnson).

Quote: “Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” (Smith)

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