The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie

by Jennifer Bubriski
Tuesday Jul 6, 2004
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The recent 20th Century Fox release of the 1968 classic "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is a chance to see Academy Award winner Maggie Smith in a mesmerizing performance. Just expect to be captivated by the movie and not by the DVD’s special features and you’ll be fine.

The film follows girls’ school teacher Jean Brodie in 1930’s Edinburgh as she molds her students and juggles lovers. Smith is powerful as the unconventional Jean and it’s easy to see why she won the Oscar for this role. It’s wonderful to see Smith play the lead in a film as a full-blooded woman, before age and Hollywood relegated her to playing witches (Professor MacGonagall in the Harry Potter movies) and dotty old broads in films like "The Ya Ya Sisterhood" and "Tea with Mussolini". It’s a little alarming in the first few minutes of "…Brodie" to realize that Smith’s MacGonagall is eerily played almost as Jean Brodie several decades later. However, Smith’s performance and the whip-smart script soon make you forget you’d ever heard of Quidditch.

It’s hard not to immediately like Jean, as she encourages independent thinking and precociousness in her students, wears stylish red and purple outfits in a sea of grey and black, and battle the old biddy of a headmistress. She tosses off withering bon mots like, "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like," (said in response to a student’s membership in the Girl Guides, of whom she clearly disapproves) or of a flower display in the headmistress’s office, "Oh, chrysanthemums. Such a serviceable flower."

Jean’s an unconventional woman, living in the 1930’s yet unmarried at an old age for the time (she’s constantly telling her students that she is "in her prime", as if trying to convince herself at times, which must be around 30-35 as she had a lover who died in the last year of World War I). She finishes up an affair with the married art teacher (Smith’s real life husband Robert Stephens) and then starting up another with the kilt-wearing music teacher (Gordon Jackson).

Yes, Jean would be a real treat if it weren’t for her annoying fascination with fascism. She’s really enamored of power, both her ability to wield it over others and that displayed by leaders like Mussolini and Franco. One of her mantras is, "I am in the business of putting old heads on young girls’ shoulders. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life." She clearly relishes her ability to not only teach her pupils about art and culture but also to inspire devotion in them and shape their personalities to her desires. Smith’s Jean is a firestorm of contradictions, an impassioned teacher whose very passion may have lead to the destruction of one of her students.

The core group of "Brodie girls" that the film follows are, as labeled by Jean, variously pretty, emotional, and dependable. Let this be a lesson, never call a pre-teen girl "dependable", as Jean finds out by the end of the film. Pamela Franklin as the "dependable" Sandy is the student who grows up to most resemble Jean, falling into bed with her teacher’s old lover and ultimately taking down her former mentor. All of the actresses playing the Brodie girls successfully fake aging from 12 to 18 over the course of the film, but Franklin’s sly transformation almost steal the film from Smith.

Almost, but not quite. No, not even close, when you witness the showdown between Brodie and the headmistress where Jean ardently asserts her dedication to teaching you’re blown away by the sheer force of Smith’s performance. How her stiff upper lip wavers and crumbles when her life and career unravel is even more subtly affecting. Truly a bravura performance that warrants viewing on DVD.

Well, the remastered picture is gorgeous and the sound quality good, if with a bit of hiss (this film being made long before digital sound), but even if I’d had ten cups of coffee the commentary by director Frank Neame would put be to sleep.

Neame certainly did a stellar job directing the movie, particularly in keeping a very talky picture based on a play moving enough to work on screen, but his DVD commentary is a major snore. There’s one or two decent bits of info on how he handled a scene, but most of the time he drones on and on about how "first I did this in film, then I wanted to produce so I did that, and then I wanted to direct so I did", blah, blah blah. Then, god help me, he actually starts NARRATING what’s happening on the screen – "And so we see that in this scene Jean does this" or "I think in this next scene Jean does that." I know, Frank, I’m watching the movie!

Neame commentary is interspersed with a little commentary from actress Pamela Franklin (although the two clearly weren’t in the same room when the commentaries were recorded). Franklin’s quips are a bit more lively and she actually has something to say about what she was thinking while playing a certain part.

Sadly, for entertainment value of the commentary, both Neame and Franklin insist that everyone was "just lovely" to work with on the film, although Neame alludes to Smith being somewhat high maintenance on the set and then frustratingly never follows up with any good stories about diva moments. Hey, actresses like Smith have earned their diva attitudes, and I like to hear about them!

The rest of the special features are limited to semi-interesting production stills and a couple of trailers of the film from the 1960’s (a time-capsule curiosity of how subtle and quiet trailers were before the grand age of Hollywood hype that started in the late 1980’s).

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.


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