It must be an awful weight, to be a parent and have to hand your child over to a stranger who will teach them about everything from English to math to how to live in the adult world. To suddenly have to open up perhaps the most intimate relationship in your life and let some new person in and allow them an equal voice…I’m glad that I haven’t had to face that yet. In the last couple of months I’ve been covering school-related stories for my local newspaper, and one of the things I’ve realized is that there are some parents who simply refuse to make that leap. They will fight tooth and nail to demand that they have a constant visible presence in their child’s life, even if it means shutting out what the school and teachers are trying to do.
I imagine that these parents are living in perpetual fear of having their kid end up in a class with someone like Jean Brodie.
There’s a dirty trick hiding in the structure of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, new on Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The film disguises itself in the skin of a different, more familiar story, and it is only over the course of the running time that the disguise slips off to reveal something harsh and ugly. It’s delicate stuff, but then, this movie comes to us from Ronald Neame, who directed the fucking brilliant heist movie Gambit, which deployed one of the single most brilliant narrative conceits ever used in a movie. He knows what he’s doing.
As The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie opens, we’re treated to wide shots of the interior of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. It’s the early 1930s, and yet this school already looks like it has weathered the blitz. Or two. The walls and floors are all coated in dirty grey, and the teachers and students alike dress in washed out, monochromatic colors.
The only source of bold and primary color is Jean Brodie, played in an Oscar-winning turn by Maggie Smith, who almost floats through the halls. When class is called, Brodie makes quick work of disposing the curriculum, preferring to treat her students to stirring lessons on the power of love, art, and bold free thought in a world that is run by self-serving systems. Neame brings you in tight on the young girls and lets you see the awe and adoration they feel for this woman, making you feel it just the same.
While the rest of the school eats in the filthy cafeteria, Jean takes a small group of girls out into the brilliant green lawn so she can serve them a fine picnic lunch and continue to discuss great works of poetry and painting, stirring in the girls an even stronger hunger for greatness. As the film continues, we see that Brodie lives her entire life in a romantic whirl, taking her chosen girls on long field trips to art museums and operas and all while simultaneously carrying out love affairs with some of the her fellow staff.
The rest of the faculty naturally hate Jean, either out of distrust for her methods or out of jealously for her vibrancy and beauty. They plot to oust her from the school
By now, you should have a vision for what this film is. You’ve seen it before, the battle between the noble teacher and the staid establishment, with the individual breaking all the rules to attain and teach a higher truth. Robin Williams cranked out like three of these movies a year in his prime.
But that’s where Neame gets you. Because Jean Brodie is not a hero who will inspire her charges to a glorious future. She is, in fact, a delusional monster living in a dream world, a dream world that she will make horrific sacrifices to maintain.
The exact nature of Brodie’s delusions and the lengths of her sacrifice should be discovered fresh by the viewer, so I’ll only say that Smith is very careful in how she parcels out Brodie’s inner life. As the film progresses, we the audience come to recognize more and more cracks in the façade, but Smith never tips her hand. There’s an extraordinary reserve both to her performance and the film as a whole: Neame will let the audience into his characters’ lives, but he never lays bare their hearts. By the end of the film, there are still giant questions about why Brodie made certain choices, but Smith refuses to give the easy answers.
Of equal importance and obfuscation is Brodie’s prize student Sandy (Pamela Franklin, whom genre lovers might know from her turns in The Innocents and The Legend of Hell House). While Brodie got the title (and Smith got the Oscar) the film truly belongs to Franklin. First of all, Franklin is so convincing as a twelve year old girl, it’s almost offensive when the film jumps ahead several years and she starts playing…let’s say ‘different’ kinds of scenes.
Franklin plays both halves of the time jump with absolute perfection. There are viper fangs growing beneath her schoolgirl smile, but there’s a child’s broken heart in her young woman’s eyes.
Perhaps the best touch of Jay Presson Allen’s script is the way it slowly strips away all other subplots until there are only Jean and Sandy, locked in a cold war with each other. When the film begins, there’s Brodie’s stalker-ish ex (Robert Stephens) and the sweet dimwit she’s currently with (Gordon Jackson), and a whole gaggle of teachers and students vying for screen-time. But these characters gradually slip by the wayside, leaving the ultimate climax as a long, involved showdown between Brodie and Sandy.
And here, again, you have to tip your hand to Franklin: she stands toe-to-toe with Smith and she does not give the Dame an inch. We watch as these two women savage each other, student and teacher verbally flailing one another, using every scrap of information gleamed from years of love in a final act of destruction. It’s riveting, powerful stuff, the kind of character-based conflict that is so foreign to modern mainstream cinema outside of Oscar-bait.
And Neame refuses to let the audience off the hook. In the closing moments of the film, Jean Brodie suggests that there is no one who can hurt us more than the people we love most, and there is no healing from those scars. There’s no triumph in Sandy’s final choice, just the quiet heartbreak of accepting the responsibility of adulthood.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an exceptional film, and you would do well to track it down.