I know it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. Life and other writing endeavors have gotten in the way. But, now I’m back to discuss a movie I’ve only just discovered. I recently made a trip home to see my parents and my dad sent me back to my L.A. homestead with some new *old* films to watch. Among them was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The only knowledge I had of this film was the casting. I knew that a young Maggie Smith, aka Professor McGonnagall, was the lead and that Pamela Franklin, aka one of the scary children from The Innocents had a part. I had a certain idea of what this film was going to be before I sat down to watch it and it completely subverted all expectations.
If you’re unfamiliar, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie follows Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), a thirtysomething teacher at a private girls school in 1930s Scotland. Her teaching methods are unorthodox to be sure, but there’s no doubt, she inspires her students. She talks to them about her own life, the choices she’s made, and the fact that she is currently in her prime…apparently. Strangely though, she doesn’t discuss history and literature much, which is what she’s actually being paid to teach. As always, DRAMA ENSUES.
Here are just a few reasons you should put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on your watchlist:
Before this film, I had only seen Maggie Smith as an older actress. But, she had a long career before she was in Harry Potter or even A Room With a View. At the time she made this film, Smith was virtually unknown. The part of Jean Brodie had been played by Vanessa Redgrave in the stage version.
Smith was around thirty-five when she played Jean Brodie and it’s a completely different Maggie Smith than you’ve seen before. Unlike her professor character in Potter or her chaperon character in Room with a View, Smith is free and wild in this film. She’s sexual and flirtatious and egotistical and charming. Her performance won her a Best Actress Oscar and it was well deserved.
Pamela Franklin, who’ve I talked about before on this blog, is famous really for two performances, her role in The Innocents and for playing Sandy in this film. I was surprised, watching her in this film, at how different she is. The scenes she shares with Robert Stephens I thought were quite scandalous. She’s nude and she looks like such a young girl. However, she was nineteen when she made this film and since this film was made just after the production code ended, this was a specific period where they were trying to see how far they could push the envelope.
Her portrayal is layered and interesting. Sandy is several things, conniving and kind of a bully. She’s curious about her own sexuality. But, she’s the only one of Miss Brodie’s pupils who questions her methods and their validity. It’s a shame Franklin left acting.
The other wonderful surprise in this film was getting to see Celia Johnson, who played one of the leads in my favorite film, Brief Encounter, in an older, much different part. In a way, it was a reverse of my knowing Maggie Smith only as an older actress. I only knew Celia Johnson as a younger actress, so seeing her in this was fascinating. In this film, Celia plays the headmistress of the school, a tough woman who’s skeptical of Miss Brodie. And, as usual, she kills it.
The screenplay was written by Jay Presson Allen who also had written the play. It was adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark. I talked about how the film subverted my expectations for the genre and that really comes down to story.
I think what really shocked me was the fact that the character of Jean Brodie was so incredibly flawed and kind of bordering on unlikable. As children, we assume that our teachers have their lives together. Actually, we pretty much apply that principle to any adult. Jean Brodie is, to me, still very immature. She thinks of herself as a savior to her students, as a guide and example for how they should live their adult lives.
We see the effect that the charismatic Jean Brodie has on two students in particular – Mary, played by Jane Carr, a shy, impressionable girl who listens to Brodie dutifully and Sandy, played as I already discussed by Pamela Franklin, who is more skeptical and adventurous and ultimately, strong.
Because it’s a reminder that perfection is unattainable!
Miss Brodie ultimately is quite immature. Her actions are not of a together person and yet, despite her actions, you do feel sympathy for her when she loses everything. That’s what makes this story so compelling – it’s about real people, people who are imperfect and make mistakes, even when they have the best of intentions.
Vintage trailer below:
Gifs and photos property of 20th Century Fox.