The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Review

Edinburgh, 1932. Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) is a teacher at the very traditional Marcia Blaine School for Girls. “I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders,” she says to her class, “and all my girls are the crème de la crème”. Miss Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods often spark confrontations with the school authorities and she fascinates and infuriates the two men who are both in love with her and she commands loyalty in her pupils. But one will betray her…

Muriel Spark’s short novel (only 128 pages in my paperback copy) was first published in 1961. Of her many novels it has been by far the most popular, having become a stage play on both sides of the Atlantic and a BBC serial as well as this big-screen version from 1969. (Another of her novels, Memento Mori, was Jack Clayton’s last film, for British TV in 1992, coincidentally also starring Maggie Smith.) Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay is derived from her own stage adaptation rather than the original novel – which introduces some significant differences between film and text. Firstly, the novel is told entirely from the viewpoint of “the Brodie set”, half a dozen girls particularly favoured by Miss Brodie’s attention. We don’t see Miss Brodie’s clashes with the traditionalist headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), nor do we see her alone with either of the two men in love with her, art master Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens, Smith’s husband) and music teacher Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson) – we have to infer what has happened through hints and glimpses that the girls pick up. Allen’s adaptation reduces the Brodie set to three or four particular girls, chief of them Sandy (Pamela Franklin), fading the rest into the background. Although the main action of both novel and film takes place over several years in the 1930s, Spark’s novel includes brief flashforwards to the girls’ later lives, as far ahead as the 1950s. In the novel, Miss Brodie dies (after World War II) not knowing who her betrayer is. In the film she does find out, in a confrontation scene right at the end of the film. Some of this is certainly justifiable, given the different demands of screen and book.

It’s easy to place The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a long line of films about inspiring teachers, brought down by the establishment of their day, but who still manage to open the minds of their pupils. But Miss Brodie is a more complex creation than, say, Robin Williams’s and Julia Roberts’s characters in Dead Poets Society and Mona Lisa Smile. Jean Brodie is an unashamed romantic, bereaved of her fiancé by World War I, and living in a world of her own at some distance from reality. In these years before World War II, she’s an ardent admirer of Mussolini and his “fascisti”. Open minds she does, but to take her entirely at face value would be dangerous…as her eventual betrayer realises.

Ronald Neame is a director very much of the old school, having worked his way up from teaboy at age fifteen via crewmember to cinematographer and then into the director’s chair. Neame’s style is one of a self-effacing “invisible” camera, at the service of the script and actors. At his worst, his films have been faceless and dull, but when the material is as strong as it is here he produces a good film. Robert Stephens as louche Teddy Lloyd, as willing to seduce young schoolgirls as Miss Brodie, Gordon Jackson as the doglike devoted Gordon Lowther, and Pamela Franklin as a sharp, perceptive Sandy, give fine performances, but this film is really a one-woman show. Jean Brodie is a larger-than-life part that Maggie Smith could have been born to play – and she walks away with the film, winning her first Oscar for her efforts. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is an enjoyable character-led comedy-drama that has worn very well.

Fox’s DVD, as part of their Region 1 Studio Classics range, has an anamorphic transfer in the original ratio of 1.85:1. Ted Moore’s cinematography has that heightened look (most noticeable in skin tones) that’s very characteristic of late-60s colour cinematography. The costume designers less than subtly dress Maggie Smith in bright life-force colours, which contrasts with the greys and blacks worn by the rest of the cast. There are some occasional grainy process shots and some minor artefacting, but this is a very good transfer, sharp, colourful, with good shadow detail and strong blacks.

This isn’t the first Fox release to have two Dolby Digital 2.0 English soundtracks, one in mono and the other remixed into stereo. The point of doing this is questionable, as there’s barely any difference between the two of them, mainly some left-and-right separation in Rod McKuen’s score. Either way, this was made as a monophonic film, and that’s the way it should really stay. A 5.1 remix would be inappropriate, especially considering how dialogue-driven the film is. There are also two dubbed soundtracks, both in mono.

Subtitles are provided for the feature but not for the extras. There are twenty-four chapter stops.

The primary extra is an audio commentary, from Ronald Neame and Pamela Franklin. The two appear to have been recorded separately and edited together. Neame takes up most of the running time with entirely lucid and precise recountings of events from thirty-five years ago – especially when you consider that he is now over ninety years old. Neame is a little luvvyish, but he’s an interesting commentator who also touches on highlights of his seventy-five-year career in movies. Franklin has less to say, but has some amusing anecdotes of the film’s premiere. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was chosen for that year’s Royal Command Performance. It was the first film bearing a (then) X certificate, restricting it to the over-sixteens, to be so chosen, and a specially edited print was prepard so that some of the more risqué elements of the film did not offend Their Majesties. (With the BBFC’s revamp of their categories in the early 1970s, the film dropped to a AA, allowing over-fourteens, and was given a 15 on its last submission. The American PG rating that this DVD bears is a little lenient, and I suspect that the film would receive a US PG-13 and a British 12 nowadays, for some sexual references and Pamela Franklin’s nude scene.)

The remaining extras are a teaser trailer (0:55) and the full theatrical trailer (3:47). Both are very dark and grainy, in anamorphic 1.85:1, and contain plot spoilers. The stills gallery contains twenty-seven black-and-white photos, navigated by the viewer via the remote. Finally, there are trailers for other titles in the Fox Studio Classics range: An Affair to Remember, The Grapes of Wrath, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley and The Song of Bernadette.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a very good film that holds up well, not least for Maggie Smith’s performance carrying all before it in the title role. Fox’s DVD keeps up the standards of its Studio Classics range.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:22:42

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