The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
On face value, it’s hard to believe someone who could make a movie as utterly engrossing and commanding of attention as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might then deliver one as arid, inert and lifeless as Meteor a decade later. That’s testament to Ronald Neame, formerly a cinematographer for David Lean, amongst others, being able to get out of the way entirely for his actors but having no great aptitude for the anonymous “epic” cinema that would dictate his subsequent career.
Other pictures about inspiring teachers have been made, more typically in the facile comedic vein (School of Rock, Kindergarten Cop). There have been more cinematic ones too – the same year’s musical Goodbye, Mr Chips, the later Dead Poets Society – but Miss Jean Brodie’s great asset is hugely compelling, rich characterisation and performance. Jay Presson Allen had previously adapted Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel into a 1966 stage play starring Vanessa Redgrave; Maggie Smith had been unavailable, whereas, when it came to the film, Redgrave professed to having had enough of the “proto-fascist part”.
Smith plays an eccentric storm as the title character, an egocentric romantic fantasist whose delusions both inspire her class and lead to their downfall. And hers. She has a formidable belief in her own rectitude, and in the school environment, barring the odd antagonist headmistress, her associates are much too impressionable to call her out. She announces “I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders”, and while all her pupils are “the crème de la crème”, she selects a chosen few from each class to receive special attention. Her regular mantra is that she is in her prime, such that those she tutors will benefit from her full powers at work.
Miss Mackay: We do not encourage the progressive attitude.
Neame and Allen operate a gradual shift, whereby Miss Brodie’s idiosyncrasy transitions from beguiling to, if not quite Machiavellian, then blithely amoral and opportunistically whimsical. This occurs chiefly through pupil Sandy (Pamela Franklin), the girl able to pierce the veil of Jean’s superficial appeal and recognise the darker undercurrents. Sandy ostensibly becomes a moral avenger, but the picture presents a trio acting for their own less than estimable motivations, each of whom sees more than the rest by virtue of a degree of self-awareness. The third party is art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, then Smith’s husband), formerly recipient of Jean’s affections but now persistently spurned, More vanilla in her approach is headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson in her first big screen role in more than a decade), who disapproves of Jean’s methods and “progressive” ideas but is unable simply to boot her out.
Jean: She seeks to intimidate me by the use of quarter hours.
Sandy’s insightfulness is seen early on, when she question’s Jean’s doctrine (“Sandy, please remember to do as I say and not as I do… Remember, you are a child, Sandy, and far from your prime”). As delightfully strident and aloof as Jean is – a scene in which Miss Mackay attempts to get the better of her by reading out a fabricated love letter to Gordon Jackson’s soft-headed music teacher Gordon Lowther is a delight, not only for her denouncing her superior’s starchy conformity but for Smith’s twitchy amusement at the contents detailing how Gordon “took me in the bracken” – her increasing displays see a shift in identification towards Sandy.
Jean: She has a profile of deceptive purity.
Her manipulation of well-meaning Gordon (who eventually becomes engaged to Rona Anderson’s chemistry teacher Miss Lockhart) and spurning of Teddy suggest one who sees herself as removed from all consequences and responsibility. Her rejection of Teddy is not based on morality – he has a family – but manipulative intent, such that she conspires to manoeuvre student Jenny (Diane Grayson) into his artistic arms (“I think you’re quite aware of what you’re doing. You’re trying to put that child in my bed in your place”).Sandy, for her part, is aggrieved at her teacher’s dismissive superiority, and manoeuvres the designated roles Jean has planned for her own ends (she poses for Teddy herself, and they begin an affair). “I doubt if having your portrait painted is going to be your career, Sandy” snips Jean.
It’s the fate of stuttering Mary McGregor (Jane Carr), however, that seals Jean’s fate. Manipulated to go and fight for Franco – the proto-fascist aspect referenced by Redgrave, albeit Teddy declaims such a notion: “She simply invests all leaders with her own romantic vision” – and so be with her brother, she is killed when her train is bombed; in a pitch-black twist, it turns out her brother was fighting Franco, not for him. Sandy is presented as genuinely outraged by her death, hence going to Miss Mackay, but also possessed by the same need to usurp her as belittle Teddy, once he has confessed he does not love her: “You don’t see that you’re not good for people… I didn’t betray you! I simply put a stop to you!” In the novel, Sandy becomes a nun – possibly amusing, but still a terrible idea.
Ultimately, both Sandy and Teddy are shown to be more perceptive than Jean, blinkered by the bubble that takes her aloft, until it bursts. Stephens makes Teddy a firebrand of devilish charm; he may not get anyone killed, but his illicit student liaisons are the stuff of educational-establishment nightmares. And yet, he is sympathetic, aware of his own corruption and lack of talent (his every portrait looks like Jean – including his entire family, and he even subsequently echoes Sandy’s put down that he is a mediocre painter to Miss Brodie). When he tells Sandy “A man with a wife and six children plus a schoolgirl for a mistress can be called a number of rude names, but coward is not one of them”, he almost gets a pass for sheer brazenness.
Smith and Stephens are formidable and generally walk off with all the praise here, but its Franklin holding her own that really impressed me the first time I saw the film; she did so again on this occasion. She had started out in The Innocents, but her later career would undeservedly bog her down in TV work; it’s worth seeing the underrated The Legend of Hell House, though, where she’s also very good. There’s an argument to be had that the main characters are perhaps too articulate, too aware and perceptive, but the pleasure of hearing Allen’s dialogue outweighs such reservations.
Jean: You have assassinated me! Assassin!
Pauline Kael liked the film but came armed with the caveats of one who cannot get past its differences from the book. She called it “a good try”, whereby “the material is so compelling that, I think, despite its flaws – of the book and play and movie – we are always engaged”. Nevertheless, she opined that Jean “becomes a witty monster” and “Instead of being unconsciously outrageous, she is deliberately outrageous, but I doubt whether the role would ‘play’ any other way…” She gives away that she doesn’t, essentially, like the way the character turns out, however: “after we’ve been invited to fall in love with her, it seems to me we rather resent it when she is cut down and becomes a mocked heroine”. Kael would rather not have all the bad things she did and focus on the good: “she did give those kids more pleasure and excitement than they got from the other teachers”. John Pym in Time Out liked the film too, noting that the material had been “narrowed down and heightened”, such that it “omits much sense of the wider, crueller world of the 30s”.
Kael wasn’t overly impressed with Neame’s direction either, but she might have taken comfort knowing it could have been worse. It could have been Michael Winner, not generally recognised for his facility with nuance (still, it isn’t all bad, as he gave us the estimable Hannibal Brooks that year). The picture was a box-office failure – perhaps it just wasn’t a good year for period pictures about teachers, but then, you might have expected the same of John Wayne westerns – although its awards success gave it something of a bump. Smith took both the Oscar and the BAFTA (the rather unnecessary theme song Jean was also Oscar nominated, while both Franklin and Johnson were Best Supporting Actor BAFTA nominated). Anthony Holden suggested Smith was the surprise winner and referenced her later observation that she was never offered a Hollywood lead again. It’s certainly true that her she became something of a heritage feature, part of the woodwork rather than granted truly relishable roles. Her win for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was thoroughly deserved.