The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Movie ReviewThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) is one of those films that I am never quite done with. No matter how many times I see it, there are things about it that disturb me and make me want to go back for more. I have also changed my view about Jean Brodie over the years, which is probably a good thing (being that she was a proponent of Fascism, Mussolini, Franco and all that).

Charismatic people are always fascinating. And scary. And often dangerous. The hold they have on their subjects can so easily be used for selfish or harmful ends, and I’m afraid Miss Brodie, in all of her fabulousness, does just that.

Based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark (and more closely on the later play by Jay Presson Allen), “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” tells the story of the lady of the title, a teacher at the ultra-conventional Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland. How Jean got a job teaching there is a bit of a mystery, but, nevertheless, there she is. Why she would rather teach there than, as arch enemy and headmistress Miss Mackay suggests, a more progressive school is evident. Miss Brodie loves to flaunt convention, to tickle the nose of authority, to push the boundaries and to be a resplendent peacock in a flock of peahens.

The story centers on Miss Brodie and her chosen girls known as “The Brodie Set.” They are:

Sandy: known for her practicality and chosen as Jean’s confidante.

Monica: known for her mathematical brilliance.

Jenny: known for her beauty and sexual appeal.

Mary McGregor: Jean’s most impressionable scapegoat.

The film follows these “gels” (as Jean pronounces them with her Scottish burr) from their pre-teen exposure to Miss Brodie to graduation. Long after they have left Miss Brodie’s class, she still keeps them close at Marcia Blaine and basks in their adoration of her as she holds forth court on art, love, beauty and politics. She also exposes them to her messy love life. She is passionately in love with married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, and he with her, but his marital status and his religion (Roman Catholicism) makes her keep him at tortuous arm’s length. Ever the master manipulator, Miss Brodie schemes to have her cake and eat it, too. She dallies with the boring but respectable bachelor Mr. Lowther, and schemes to arrange an eventual affair between Jenny and Mr. Lloyd, thereby conducting a vicarious affair between the man she truly loves and the beautiful girl she can control. Sandy is to be designated as Miss Brodie’s spy.

Unfortunately, in addition to her tastes in art and thoughts on love, Miss Brodie also imparts her romantic infatuation with fascism to her gels. Mary McGregor, impressionable and eager to please, leaves for Spain to join her brother (who is fighting in the Spanish Civil War). She goes with Miss Brodie’s encouragement and a head filled with a romanticized notions of war and fascism and ends up a casualty in Franco’s war when the train she is traveling on is bombed. Most unfortunate for Miss Brodie, she selected the wrong confidante. Not only does Jenny not have the planned affair with Mr. Lloyd (whose various portrait subjects all look like Jean Brodie), it is Sandy who ends up making love to the art teacher. Miss Brodie once declared Sandy to be “insightful, but not instinctive,” intimating that she lacked the Brodie flair for life. But clever little Sandy had a few surprises up her sleeve. Jean Brodie could never imagine that any of her chosen set could betray her. How little she really knew them. Hurt over Mr. Lloyd’s continual fascination with Jean, disgusted by Jean’s attempts to get Jenny into a married man’s bed and horrified at Mary McGregor’s fate, Sandy is the one who finally has enough and confronts her old teacher. She lays Miss Brodie’s crimes before her (Brodie did not bother to learn that Mary’s brother was fighting against Franco), but Jean is unrepentant. It is Sandy who feels the pain of her adored teacher’s influence so thoughtlessly and foolishly wielded over her creme de la creme. Before Sandy leaves to turn her in and get her fired, Jean Brodie yells “Assassin!” Mary McGregor’s death, Mr. Lloyd’s and Mr. Lowther’s and Sandy’s great disappointment in the person she admired most mean nothing to her.

The performances, along with the subject matter, raise this film above the ordinary. Maggie Smith won a much-deserved Oscar for her complex and affecting performance. She is stylish, outrageous, refined and utterly spell-binding as Jean Brodie. Never once does this narcissistic creature ever realize the real damage she has done to so many. Smith makes her hard to forget for all of Jean Brodie’s failings.

Pamela Franklin, as Sandy, is her equal every step of the way. Her performance goes to the top of my list as one that should have not only received an Academy Award nomination, but one that deserved a win.

In the end, I have to  side with Sandy. When I was younger, I was just as enthralled with Miss Brodie as her students. I overlooked her faults because she was “special.” However, Sandy, blindly misjudged and underestimated by Jean, only turns her former teacher in (“betrays” is the word Miss Brodie uses) to the dreaded Miss Mackay after her thoughtless actions lead to the death of poor Mary McGregor and her machinations attempt to start an affair between Jenny and a married man. Maybe Sandy was jealous of Miss Brodie’s adoration of Jenny and of Mr. Lloyd’s undying passion for her teacher, but Miss Brodie did real harm. Impressionable girls deserve better. The person who influences us the most has the capacity to hurt us the most.

There are some movies that just speak to us and draw us back for repeated viewings. For me, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is one of those films. the film and the book differ in many ways. In the book, there are more girls in the Brodie Set. The emphasis on religion is muted on the screen, as is Sandy’s eventual conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a nun.

Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of  classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. You can also visit her on Facebook.
  • Tito Pannaggi

    It was with this film I realised how great star Maggie Smith was!

    It was a strong film for its time!

    • Gordon Jackson

      This superb film is firmly in my top 40. And I concur that Pamela Franklin was fantastic and well-deserved to win Best Supporting Actress. In my own alternate Oscars she did. (While Smith lost to Kim Darby.(:) As good as Smith can be, she seems to be pigeonholed in never-ending haughtiness, so it was quite refreshing to watch Pamela Franklin memorably take her down.

  • Luigi From NYC

    This FLICK was so PERFECTLY-CAST –

    It virtually Defied-Description –

    Every character portrayed –

    e.g. The Principal and her Nosey Secretary –

    Was Above Par –

    The Casting-Agent should have received an –

    O S C A R !

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000993528023 James Morris

    Amazing film, I can watch it over and over.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon Jackson

    “She always seems so severe” says one teacher/character in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” And so she was, severe in outlook, passions, judgments and dress. (Jean Brodie is the only character who wears anything colourful, often incorporating something red in this film.) A fascinating yet entertaining study in human complexity, it does indeed deserve repeated viewings as Marsha Collock indicates. Certainly Dame Maggie Smith’s superlative performance as ‘the dangerous Miss Brodie’ is the jewel in the crown of this film, but as also indicated above, the supporting players are equally well worthy of mention. Still, it is the complex character of Jean Brodie that keeps drawing me back, a woman so full of herself that she is incapable of seeing anything beyond her own personal, sometimes petty prejudices. A frustrated, Scottish Scarlet O’Hara, she longs for a love she has probably never known and certainly will never will know. And we see it all in the film’s climax in the second of its two most powerful scenes.

    Returning to her classroom after having crossed swords with the equally rigid school meadmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson in the film’s other powerful scene), she dispenses with her students usual lesson and instead shows them slides of a trip she once took to Italy with her then enamorata, Hugh. Ostensibly in love with Hugh, she takes her class on an emotion laden, highly manipulative trip down memory lane. But interestingly, it is the only time her ‘manipulations’ are honest in the sense that she Jean Brodie is not simply out to draw the adoration of her class to herself. At all other times she is, for any number of reasons as sighted above. But this time, the veil is ever-so-gently parted and we see the non-severe Jean Brodie. Hugh she claims was her true love, and maybe he was. Or again, as with the art master Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, Dame Maggie’s real life husband at the time) she was simply fantasizing about what she wanted that relationship to be. We don’t know what it was with Hugh, but I personally get the impression that Jean Brodie was less in love with Teddy Lloyd than in lust with him. What she was really in love with was the notion of being around an ‘artist’ and all that fantasy world implied.

    If you haven’t seen “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” or are due for a re-see, don’t put it off. It’s value is beyond rubies.

  • wade

    the incredible Maggie Smith in a perfect role for her

  • http://www.facebook.com/anne.m.jennings1 Anne Jennings

    Unlike Marsha Collock, I saw Miss Jean Brodie for the monster that she was. Self-deceiving, hurting, worthy of our sympathy, but a monster nevertheless. The magnificent portrayal of this woman by Dame Maggie Smith enabled us to experience all of the pain and misguided pride within her; of course she won an oscar for that role!

  • Anita

    I am fortunate enough to have viewed this magnificent films numerous times throughout the years. Two pivotal lines from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” have remained with me. The first is Maggie Smith emphatically stating “I am in my prime” and the second line is when she runs after Sandy shouting “Assassin!”. Maggie Smith was then, and will always be, a marvel.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001600960135 Roger Lynn

    ONE OF THE GREATEST–MAGGIE SMITH WAS A REVELATION SHE SO DESERVED HER BEST ACTRESS OSCAR,,,WHY PAMELA FRANKLIN WAS NOMINATED IS A MYSTERY…LOVE THE OPENING OF THE MOVIE,,WHEN THE SONG JEAN IS PERFORMED…MAGGIE SMITH IS IN MY TOP 10 OF GREAT ACTRESSES

  • SLH

    Loved the movie, which is greatly enhanced by Rod McKuens wonderful ‘Jean’.One of the best opening credits sequence and score ever, transports you to exactly where you need to be to enjoy this gem. I actually was able to see past the evil and feel pity for Jean. What puts a person in such a distorted fantasy world and causes the need to control everyone around them, perhaps the lack of all they need in reality ? She truly was so out of control and unfulfilled she was desperate to fill those needs. Pamela Franklin was brilliant as Sandy she recognized so much of Miss Brodie in herself and fought fiercly to not be like her once the reality of who Jean truly was sunk in. Maggie Smith at her best, rich with supporting characters and beautiful scenery, Love It !!