The 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.