The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Did Rod McKuen have any idea what the film was about when he wrote the saccharine end title theme song ‘Jean’ (‘run if you will/to the top of the hill’)?  It’s among the most tonally inapt songs ever foisted on a movie, and was probably responsible for me not getting round to seeing it until now – I remember the saucy AA-certificate trailer and the chart success of the song, but was too young to see it in 1969 and not that interested in Ronald Neame-directed adaptations of Muriel Spark novels starring theatrical knighteds in the subsequent decades.  It was a big film – awarded and widely-seen – on release, but rather quickly fell out of fashion, like a lot of big studio art projects.  I’d wager that its commercial success was split evenly between admirers of Maggie Smith, who was recreating a stage star role, and leches who were waiting for young Pamela Franklin’s nude scene.  It’s a fussy preservation of the story, with art-direction ideas like dressing everyone in drab greys and not having all the settings be dourly grim so that Smith’s wardrobe as the unconventional teacher can stand out all the more.  However, it still works because of the material and the lead performances – Smith’s Jean Brodie comes on like the sort of inspirational teachers we’re accustomed to in the likes of Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, clashing with the stuffy higher-ups (Celia Johnson) and fiercely devoted to her girls (‘the crème de la crème’), but it gradually becomes apparent that she’s a self-deluding and actually dangerous lunatic.  Amid all her talk of art and passion, she insists on her arbitrary preferences as facts (Giotto is the best Italian painter) and weirdly tries to shove one of her budding pupils onto her former lover, art teacher Lloyd (Robert Stephens).  Smith’s Jean Brodie, who claims descend from Deacon Brodie, is set against protégé-turned-nemesis Sandy (Franklin), who bridles at being classified as the sensible one and slips into Lloyd’s bed, only to be upset when she sees that his nude portrait of her – like all his paintings – looks like Jean.  The telling flaw is Miss Brodie’s enthusiastic admiration for fascist strong men in Italy and Spain, which leads her to romanticise the brother of a pupil who has gone to fight in the Civil War (misunderstanding which side he’s on) and encourage his sister to go off and get killed for principles that are actively evil.  Smith is such a vibrant performer and Sandy such a flawed character that the struggle between the two isn’t as cut-and-dried morally as it might be, which makes this a much more disturbing picture than it would be if remade now.  That said, the notion of sheltered students becoming radicalised and rushing off to die in wars they can have no understanding of is even more relevant now – and a plot strand that might have seemed far-fetched then parallels 2015 headlines about schoolgirls haring off to join ISIS.  With Gordon Jackson, Rona Anderson, Isla Cameron, Molly Weir and Ann Way on the staff and Diane Grayson, Jane Carr and Shirley Steedman in the class.  Scripted by Jay Presson Allen, whose play gets a bigger push in the credits than the novel. mjb


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