Guest Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

In this guest post, Constance Metzinger reviews 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

“I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders and all of my girls are the créme de la créme”

Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) has dedicated her life, the prime of her life, to her girls, a class of impressionable students at Marcia Blain’s School for Girls in Edinburgh. Forsooth, there are four girls in particular that she hand-picked to nurture, mold, and carry forth into the world the ideologies, etiquette, and culture of the Brodie manifesto:

Mary (Jane Carr), a stuttering simple-minded child who worships her; Monica (Shirley Steadman) a literary who Miss Brodie predicts will one day become an actress; Jenny (Diane Greyson), a young beauty whom Miss Brodie feels a spiritual bond with, and who she believes is destined to become a great lover; and Sandy (Pamela Franklin). “What shall I say about Sandy?”…. “Sandy is dependable,” Sandy replies.

Indeed, all of Miss Brodie’s girls are dependable….and loyal to her. Or so Jean believes, until one day she is informed of her dismissal by the school board and discovers that it was one of her set who “betrayed” her with accusations that she was corrupting the minds of her pupils with fascist politics.
“You are dangerous and unwholesome, and children should not be exposed to you!”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark’s most celebrated work, was penned in 1961 and has since become known as one of the great contemporary works of fiction. It is a slim, sparse, and brittle novella, written with exactness and compassionate wit. Her story of the charismatic schoolteacher and the effect she has on her pupils was inspired by Miss Kay, a teacher at the Edinburgh school of girls that Spark attended in her youth. “What filled our minds with wonder and made Miss Kay so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened.”

Jay Presson Allen expanded upon the book when writing the script to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was based upon her own stage play (Vanessa Redgrave starred in the original 1966 London production). Whereas the film follows a natural progression of time, Mrs. Spark moves back and forth in her narrative. We follow six girls of Miss Brodie’s “set” throughout their school years, but we also see their middle age and how they looked back with amusement on a Miss Brodie who was beyond her prime. It is only Sandy, the “clever” one, now Sister Helena, a nun, who has compassion for the woman she ultimately betrays, understanding her weaknesses.
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life”

Miss Brodie believes that deep in all of us is the potential for greatness, or the potential to inspire greatness. As a teacher – first, last, and always – she fiercely defends the freedom she has, and the power she wields, in her ability to inspire her students to think beyond conventional standards. She nurtures their independent spirit (“phrases like the ‘team spirit’ are always employed to cut across individualism”) and admirably imparts to them a passionate love for history, music, literature, and beauty in nature. While other students eat together in the common cafeteria, Miss Brodie and her girls have picnics under the shady boughs of the chestnut tree outdoors.

Brodie’s antithesis is the prim and proper headmistress Miss MacKay (the brilliant Celia Johnson). MacKay belongs to a respectable old set, an admirer of Stanley Baldwin and his belief in Safety First. But as Miss Brodie informs her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first.”

Miss MacKay is jealous of the dedication and admiration Jean inspires in her pupils. Like the other girls, Sandy admires Miss Brodie, too, but she questions her teachings and comes, in time, to see Miss Brodie’s deep-rooted love of art and beauty warp into a misguided and sordid manipulation of her girls. Miss Brodie’s own sense of purity denies her from indulging in any physical display of passion for Mr. Lloyd ( Robert Stephens ), her true love, the art teacher, or Mr. Lowther (Gordon Jackson), the singing master, who wishes to marry her. However, she delights in the idea of one of her set becoming Lloyd’s mistress.

Her admiration for men and women who fight for what they believe in causes her to praise figures such as Benito Mussolini and Franco as conquerors, men who will go down in history as dedicated warriors; and her rousing speeches in praise of these Fascisti causes Mary MacGregor to head into the fray of battle in Spain, dying a fool’s death. Sandy alone cares enough to react and, cruel in her awakened moral conscience, she exacts a revenge that will doom her teacher to a bitter and solitary spinsterhood.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a critical and box office success upon its release in 1969. Its opening theme song “Jean” (written by Rod McKuen and performed by Olive ) went on to top the billboard charts.

Maggie Smith is a triumph in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the captivating teacher, and Pamela Franklin gives a particularly strong performance, but it is director Ronald Neame – an artist who was basking in his prime at the time – who deserves credit for making The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie such a brilliant film, both visually and dramatically.

Through this picture, he accomplished what almost all filmmakers hope to accomplish when adapting a book to film – to create a picture that not only does justice to its origin but improves upon it. And as Miss Brodie would probably agree – one should always strive for perfection in any art form.

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.” This post originally ran last November.