This week’s featured film is a bona fide classic, and, like Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel from which it is adapted, much more subversive and controversial than many would give it credit for. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a film about loyalty, betrayal, guilt, duty, responsibility and questions of nature versus nurture. To borrow from Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, the subtext of both novel and movie can be summarised in the phrase ‘You’ve got to be carefully taught’.
The film is almost overbalanced by the incredible central performance by Maggie Smith as Brodie. It is such a tour de force that the story, and its accompanying questions of morality, can be lost. There’s a scene, which is previewed in the trailer below, where she is being spied upon by fellow teachers. She is described by one of them as being ‘so extreme’. That’s exactly what she is, and so is Maggie Smith’s performance.
It’s interesting that the structure of the film comes from the successful Broadway stage version as there is often a sense of Smith playing to the back of the stalls. But I’m being picky, her Jean Brodie is the thing that you remember long after you’ve forgotten story and plot. Smith is the film’s greatest triumph, but more and more I think she is also its greatest problem. There is no doubt that Smith’s Brodie steals the film, but it is so much more than just that performance and you almost have to get beyond it to enjoy all the film has to offer. Here’s the trailer:
Muriel Spark manages to write characters who should be unlikeable, but are nonetheless fascinating, and the cast of the film do her creations justice. If you take the character’s actions away from the performances then we shouldn’t really care for any of them. Brodie’s faults and foibles are too numerous to mention. She ticks almost all of the seven deadly sins, but the other main players all display their own fatal flaws. Robert Stephen’s art teacher lothario Teddy Lloyd is a horror of a man, cheating not only on his wife, but also Brodie, with no regard for any consequences, but, like Brodie, he is (almost) as attractive to the audience as he is to the teacher and by extension her ‘girls’.
Gordon Jackson’s ‘Mr Lowther’ is feckless and weak, headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson) is overly proud and pompous, Mary McGregor’s stupidity is legendary, and all the other girls deliberately represent aspects of Miss Brodie’s make-up. That’s the way they’ve been ‘taught’ to be. Even our supposed heroine Sandy Stranger, brilliantly played by Pamela Franklin, has questionable reasons for her subsequent betrayal. She is the Judas of the Brodie set, but is it because she wants to save others from the clutches of Jean Brodie, or more complex reasons of jealousy and revenge? Their relationship is the most important one in the film. Theirs is a bond of love and hate, a Greek tragedy with all that entails.
For its time this is quite the liberal film. Sexual openness, teenage nudity, and the dangers of fascism are all central to the story. If you’ve never seen this film then you really must. If you have then I would say watch it again. It gives up new insights and intrigue, and is oddly more discomforting, with every viewing.