Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) is a sort of Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)/To Sir With Love (1967) for the female sex…but with a twist. The film stars Maggie Smith as a pert educator at Marcia Blaine all-girl's prep school in Edinburgh circa the mid-1930s. Arguably, this is Smith's best role - or at least the one she is most readily identified with when a retrospective of career is mentioned.
By the time the film went into production Muriel Spark's 1961 novel of the same name had already been acclaimed for the structural complexity of its narrative. In adapting the book for the screen, writer Jay Presson Allen (who had previously written a modestly successful stage version that starred Vanessa Redgrave) stayed relatively close to the book's central themes of morality, manipulation and betrayal among the fairer sex.
More than a box office draw, what the film required was a dynamite performer who could embody the rigidly perverse asexuality of the marm whose steely idealism self destructs when faced with an enterprising young miss even more devious, cold and calculating than she. The film got that and more in Maggie Smith; hardly a superstar in America - although she had made a modestly successful career for herself in Britain by this time.
On the surface Jean is a free spirit – a woman who knows her own mind or at least, her own opinion on just about everything. She deems herself an intellectually stimulated mistress of broad-minded experiences. Naturally, Jean’s progressive attitudes ruffle the brittle traditionalist approach to school teaching at Marcia Blaine Academy, particularly its austere headmistress, Miss Emmeline Mackay (Celia Johnson).
Miss Mackay is also not terribly keen on Jean dating two of her male professors; the wealthy – though stuffy music master - Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson) and rather brutish womanizer masquerading as 'artist', Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens). Neither is fancied by Jean for any great length of time. Rather, she flirtatiously toys with these hapless men, occasionally pitting one against the other, and always insisting that her heart, rather than her loins, require more stimulation.
Jean prides herself on living the lie of a self-deluding spinster to whom Mussolini is a national treasure on par with the Mona Lisa, and passion is the spark of human folly that can topple the world. These ideals Jean instills in her pupils as they explore museums, concerts and picnics on the lawn together. But Jean may be unaware how much to heart 'her girls' take her advice, particularly the cunningly analytic wallflower, Sandy (Pamela Franklin).
Lowther proposes to Jean several times. After all, his reputation within the school and at his church are at stake. And he sincerely wants a home, a wife and a family in that particular order. But Jean recoils from his constant prodding. She still has feelings for Teddy, who is fiery, smart, but utterly possessive.
Jean's renegade teaching inspire the girls to rebel against convention. She is instrumental in attempting a sexual liaison between one of her pupil's, winsome Jenny and Teddy. Instead Sandy, who is wily beyond her years, seduces Teddy by offering to pose nude for him as his artist's model. Pupil Mary McGregor (Jane Carr), the stuttering introvert of the group, becomes inspired by Jean's praise of fascism, to quit school and join Franco's army because she believes her brother is off fighting there. Tragically, the train Mary is on is blown up shortly after crossing the frontier.
Bitter over the lose of her friend, but more jealous than anything of Jean's influence on their lives, Sandy betrays Jean to Miss McKay. Fueled with this knowledge, McKay fires Jean from Marcia Blaine. Sandy and Jean have their showdown in an empty classroom - both making valid points about the other's character, or lack thereof, but without being able to see the other's viewpoint.
Sandy tells Jean that Mary's brother was fighting for the Republican army - not Franco's - then coldly walks out on the disgraced marm who irrationally shouts "Assassin!" after her. Upon graduation, Sandy discovers that she is not particularly well liked by the other girls who regard her betrayal of Miss Brodie as vial. With diploma in hand, a tear-stained Sandy walks away from the school with Jean's voice echoing in her head "Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life!"
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is cinematic dynamite. Jay Presson Allen's script takes its artistic liberties with Muriel Spark's novel, condensing some of the narrative threads and parring down the girls under Jean's tutelage by two. Furthermore, several of the existing characters are actually amalgams of two or more characters in the book. None of these liberties impacts the overall dramatic arch of the story, and arguably, even enhances the film by keeping tighter reigns on the already hefty cast.
Ronald Neame's direction keeps a nimble pace. The score by Rod McKuen was Oscar nominated, as was the song 'Jean' that became a huge sensation for baritone pop artist 'Oliver'. In retrospect, the underscoring really pigeon-holing the film as a 60s time capsule instead of complimenting its ‘30s pastiche of sets and costumes.
Fox Home Video has done a relatively good job remastering The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for DVD. There are unresolved issues, however. The pluses: colors are lush and appropriately balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Contrast levels are bang on. The minuses: some long shots suffer from a slight pixelization that breaks up fine background details. Age related artifacts also persist and are occasionally rather obvious.
The audio has been remixed to stereo. But dialogue is quite unnatural sounding. Due to an unresolved copyright issue, Oliver's title song has been replaced with an orchestral rendering instead. As a film purist I am mildly outraged by this omission, something Fox ought to have definitely resolved before releasing this disc as part of Fox’s Studio Classic series.
An audio commentary and very scant stills gallery are all the extras we get. It really is a mystery why Fox's continues to benchmark certain titles as part of their Studio Series when their attention to supplements is often poor to nonexistent. Let’s just call this one a general release and be done with it. There's nothing special about the special features. Nevertheless, the DVD is recommended for image quality and entertainment value.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)