The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Directed by Ronald Neame

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), a teacher at a private girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh, exercises a tremendous influence upon her students. However, her unconventional behaviors and opinions, such as having affairs with several different men, expressing admiration for Mussolini, taking some of her favorite students on weekend outings to the opera, and putting on various pretentious airs, anger and annoy some persons, including the school's headmistress.

Ronald Neame's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a skillfully crafted, beautifully acted movie. Although it never achieves greatness, it is always a pleasure to watch.

The delineations of the film's characters are, at once, very broad and remarkably subtle. Miss Brodie herself is wildly overdone. With her affected manners, her platitudes about art and beauty, her lauding of Mussolini, her paeans to the heroism and devotion of Franco, her blindness to the feelings of others, and her admiration of her own influence upon her girls, she is almost a grotesque. However, perhaps because the viewer at first sees only the ridiculousness of the character, and only later comes to sympathize with her for her bravery, stubbornness, and flawed humanity, such extreme traits actually make her a surprisingly engaging individual. The moviegoer, though he will often despise the woman, will also find himself both caring and cheering for her.

While Jean Brodie is undoubtedly the film's most memorable character, she is not the only one who is nicely realized. Sandy (Pamela Franklin), who is one of Miss Brodie's favored students, is also mesmerizing. The director brings out the girl's disappointment when Miss Brodie praises some of her other students lavishly but, having come to Sandy, can think of nothing to say. Even the rather weak compliment she does pay Sandy, that the girl is dependable, is spoken only after Sandy herself suggests it. At other times, Neame shows Sandy's sense of fun when depicting her pretending to be both Miss Brodie and that woman's lover kissing and her jealousy when he exposes her reactions to ways different persons are preferred over herself. When, for instance, she becomes aware that Miss Brodie is trying to get her former lover, Teddy (Robert Stephens), the school's art teacher, to abandon his feelings for her by taking as his lover one of her students, Jenny (Diane Grayson), whose beauty Miss Brodie frequently lauds, Sandy becomes his lover instead. Later, when she sees how a painting Teddy has made of her resembles Miss Brodie, and thereupon realizes that he still loves Jean, Sandy is so overcome with envy that she breaks off their relationship. Such depictions do not, however, make Sandy into a villain, as her flaws, when revealed, give her a touching authenticity. Her eventual animosity towards Miss Brodie is thus not merely motivated by an opposition to the very real harm her teacher has done and could do in the future, though that is certainly there as well, but also by indignant spitefulness.

Fortunately, the performances of the actors are often accomplished. Several are forgettable and a few do exaggerate somewhat, but others are a joy to watch. Pamela Franklin is consistently a delight as Sandy and Maggie Smith is truly enthralling as the title character. I cannot begin to congratulate either of these two enough. The latter, in particular, is sure to make an impression on the viewer. She has taken a person who could easily have been portrayed as a caricature and suffused her with such a sense of veracity that the viewer is sure to find himself wrapped up in her existence.

As numerous as its virtues are, I must concede that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is hardly without flaws. Some of the events, especially those relating the title character's relationships with her fellow teachers, can be melodramatic and do make the movie seem like a soap opera. Several themes are not satisfactorily developed, such as Sandy's affair with Teddy, which is really only shown in a single scene, and the movie cannot be said to be beautiful to look at. Such shortcomings, though real, do not, by any means, spoil the film.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is, in fact, an involving work that is likely to surprise the viewer by leaving him profoundly affected.

Review by Keith Allen

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