My 100 Favourite Films In Review – Number 75, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

75 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

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“Give me a girl of impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

So how about teachers, huh? After our parents, our teachers are going to be the most significant adults in our lives during the early stages of childhood. They’re the ones that teach us how to read and write, as well as instilling a sense of right and wrong. Teachers can easily play the villain or the hero in a young child’s life. They’re either the bastard who spoils our fun, or the mentor we go to for guidance. It’s usually the former when we hit the teenage years. But any story with a school setting is bound to have some kind of inspirational teacher who acts as a prominent mentor or guide. Movies full of inspirational teachers were everywhere a few years ago – especially featuring anti-establishment teachers designed to shake up a conservative system. So it’s all the more surprising that we can find a deconstruction of the ‘Save Our Students’ plot as far back as 1961. Muriel Spark’s novel tells of an inspirational teacher doing her best to shake up a prudish school – and who ends up ruining her students’ lives. Its best known adaptation is the 1969 film starring Maggie Smith as the eponymous Jean Brodie.

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Muriel Spark was inspired to write the book based partly off one of her own teachers. A Miss Christina Kay taught her for two years at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and she was the inspiration for Miss Brodie’s more positive qualities. Spark credits Kay with suggesting that she become a writer in the first place. Like Miss Brodie, Kay was an eccentric supporter of Mussolini – and hung pictures of him in her classroom. The book was first adapted for the stage in 1966, where they had hoped to get Maggie Smith as the lead. She wasn’t available, so they got Vanessa Redgrave instead. The film came along two years later, with Redgrave planned to play Jean Brodie once again. But this time, she wasn’t available and they got to have Maggie Smith after all.

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It’s 1930s Scotland and our location is the Marcia Blaine School for Girls. The opening titles take place over a lovely sequence where each character is introduced to us as they arrive at school. The ones to know are:

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Ms Jean Brodie, teacher for the junior aged girls
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Mr Teddy Lloyd, the art teacher.
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Mr Gordon Lowther, music teacher and church choirmaster.
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Monica, Jenny and Sandy – members of the ‘Brodie Set’, favourites of Jean’s.

 

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Miss McKay – the headmistress.

After the first assembly of the new term is over, we join Miss Brodie in her first class. There are two new girls. The first, Emily Carstairs, gets dismissed by Miss Brodie when she starts to brag about being a girl scout. The second, Mary McGregor, is prone to stuttering and claims she hasn’t got any interests. Miss Brodie smiles and says that it is her job to provide her with interest. She establishes her character for the new girls – and the audience of course – by announcing that she is in her prime. And as such, she wants to encourage interest in art and beauty in her students. She does so by hanging a painting by her favourite artist Giotto in front of a notice from the headmistress – also telling them to pretend they’re doing a history lesson. But she instead tells them of a story of the night her lover left for the war.

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Yep, it seems like this teacher is telling a class full of teenage girls about her romantic affairs. The story moves Monica to tears, which is awkwardly timed with Miss McKay coming in for a surprise inspection. If you’re savvy on this type of story, you’d expect Miss McKay to be a strict, stern, humourless prude. But from this scene, she comes across as a friendly enough head who just wants her girls to do well. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a reason that Jean has chosen to undermine her authority at all.

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Bingo.

After this lesson, we get to know our Mr Teddy Lloyd. He’s just welcomed his third daughter into the world, making one raise eyebrows when he forces Jean into an empty bathroom and kisses her passionately. Remember that Jean’s last name is not Lloyd. And he implies that they’ve been having something of an affair. Jean rebuffs his advances for now at least.

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At lunch, we see that the Brodie Set get to eat outside on the grass with Jean. The new girl Mary McGregor has been invited to join them. Jean is called away for a cup of tea with Mr Gordon Lowther – her other love interest. He’s the Betty to Teddy’s Veronica. The Arthur to Teddy’s Lancelot. The Chandler Bing to Teddy’s Richard Burke. I’m sure you get the picture. The nature of Jean’s feelings towards both men is really left open. She keeps them both at bay for different reasons, which I’ll go into more detail further along.

After a brief exchange where we learn that Mary McGregor and her brother are orphans, we follow Gordon and Jean. As an aside, Gordon Jackson is the only actual Scot in the main cast. He invites Jean away for the weekend…after she’s done some careful manipulation that is. We then get a casual discussion between Jenny and Sandy, where they wonder about sex. Poor girls didn’t grow up with Friends and teen slasher movies to teach them like we did.

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During an outing with the Brodie Set – where we learn that Jean is an intense Fascism supporter – they go near Teddy Lloyd’s studio. After a hilariously OTT reaction from Teddy at seeing Jean, he accidentally-on-purpose bumps into them. He tries to get her to come by the studio at the weekend so he can show her the painting he’s done of her. She reminds him that she and the girls are going to spend the weekend with Mr Lowther. At said weekend, we see the girls sneaking into Jean’s bedroom and giggling at the idea that she and Lowther are doing it. They have further material to giggle over when Teddy shows them nudes in art class. This bunch are easily amused.

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Teddy tries to put the moves on Jean again in her empty classroom. She again rebuffs him – saying he has a family to think about, and she has her teaching. But this is before they gave boys that ‘no means no’ lecture, so Teddy ends up kissing her passionately again. Unfortunately, none other than Mary McGregor walks in on them. After dealing with that problem, Jean is struck by an idea. She thinks Teddy should paint a portrait of Jenny. She is the prettiest of the Brodie Set.

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Also the only one with the same hair colour as Miss Brodie. How curious.

The other girls worm the truth out of Mary, and Sandy guesses something correctly for a change: Miss Brodie is really in love with Mr Lloyd, but he’s married. So she’s “working it off on Mr Lowther” instead. And because no one knocks in this school, the girls are caught giggling about it by Miss McKay. Notably the headmistress doesn’t shriek at them for being so unladylike. She’s just a little worried about where four girls got such an idea from. She also implies that she’d like their grades to be a little higher – since they do need to pass their exams after all.

Miss Brodie is interrupted singing the praises of Mussolini when Miss McKay summons her to her office. We can assume that she’s a bit worried at Jean showing such blatant favouritism to the four girls, especially with weekend trips to Mr Lowther’s house. I get the feeling Miss McKay thinks it’s a little inappropriate for a teacher to be that close to her students. In this scene we also learn that Jean has been at the school for six years longer than Miss McKay. After Jean leaves, we find out that Miss McKay is actually determined to find any reason to get rid of her. So she gets other members of staff to be on the lookout for any slip-ups.

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“Jean, hide our Twilight roleplays.”

A few months later, Gordon tells Jean that he was reported to a deacon at the church where he is the choirmaster – for it apparently being inappropriate to be seen out with an unmarried woman and four girls. Jean has no problem relaying this information to the Brodie Set, and saying that Miss McKay is determined to get her out of the school. She’s confident that it won’t happen, saying the only way she can get rid of her is to assassinate her.

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“Don’t tempt me, love.”

Jean then starts talking wistfully about her girls and what makes them special. She tells us that Monica will grow up to write plays of some kind. It’s good that she tells us this about Monica because she does absolutely nothing in the film. Mary McGregor will grow up to stop stuttering and become a graceful lady. Sandy is dependable – at least according to the girl herself. And Jenny is beautiful – and will no doubt catch the eye of an artist and be painted. Cut to this very thing happening – where Teddy Lloyd is painting a portrait of Jenny. But when Sandy looks at it, she thinks it looks more like Miss Brodie.

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Yep, this kind of thing.

The other three girls leave but Sandy stays behind. I should also mention that some time has now passed – and the girls are all in their final year. It’s clear that Teddy has noticed too, because he kisses Sandy! The terrified girl flees of course. She has tea with Jean a few days later, and Miss Brodie is very interested to hear that Jenny is now being painted. She’s also quite pleased when Sandy mentions that all Teddy’s paintings look like they’re of her. Talk then turns to Sandy herself, where Jean outlines what she thinks Sandy will amount to. She feels that Sandy has a keen insight – and sees things that others do not. She says that Sandy would make a great spy, because she’s not emotional.

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And she’s already got a head-start on torture techniques.

We then discover what her plans for Jenny are. Miss Brodie plans for Jenny to “know love” once she’s eighteen. Or perhaps even seventeen will do. Sandy realises this means she’ll have affairs. So it looks like Jean Brodie has been grooming Jenny to have affairs with older men. Or perhaps one specific man. An artist perhaps? Although this scene is made up of Jean’s dialogue, most of the focus is on Sandy’s reaction. And we get some great reactions from Pamela Franklin. Through only her facial expressions, she tells us that Sandy is starting to get a different impression of her former teacher than the one she is used to.

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Gordon and Jean later get called into Miss McKay’s office urgently. The librarian has found a scandalous letter written by two of the girls lying around. The reason it’s scandalous is because it is written as Jean to Gordon – talking about sex and the like. While Miss McKay reads the letter out loud, the reactions from the other two are priceless. Gordon in particular keeps jumping around from looking mortified to coming close to cracking up. Miss McKay demands that Jean resign at once, if this is the sort of thing her girls are learning about from her. You can guess what Jean says to that. Actually you don’t need to guess, because her putdown is pretty epic:

“If scandal is to your taste, Miss McKay, then I will give you a feast!”

Jean actually unloads on Miss McKay in a pretty passionate way. It’s pretty clear that she’s very offended by the accusations and even more by the headmistress telling her to resign for them. She defends herself and says she will not allow her love of teaching to be taken from her so easily. And for all her faults and eccentricities, you can see that Jean is very passionate and dedicated to being a teacher. Miss McKay is even stunned into silence by this. On an unrelated note, if the headmistress is so shocked by that letter, we should be grateful she probably doesn’t live long enough to see real person sex fics become a thing.

Gordon and Jean then talk in private, Gordon now having had enough of all the sneaking around. He wants to know why Jean just doesn’t hurry up and marry him already. She’s pretty much his wife in all but name anyway – and yes that includes the raunchy bedroom stuff. Jean actually doesn’t give a reason, and goes back to her classroom. Teddy Lloyd comes in and he’s rightly guessed what Jean’s intentions are with Jenny: to groom her into an affair with him as a stand-in for herself.

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He also accuses her of using Gordon as a stand-in for him, claiming that’s why she doesn’t marry him. Although she slaps him, the argument doesn’t go any further because it’s time for classes to resume. Jean is clearly rattled by the day’s events, and decides to show slides from her trip to Italy to the girls. But she soon gets distracted when she starts telling a story about a fourteen-year-old girl’s affair with an older man – and starts preaching that such romances can be valid. She completely loses it in front of her students and it’s one of the more disturbing moments for Jean in the film.

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“All work and no play makes Jean a dull girl. All work and no…”

Things take a turn for the really shocking when we discover that Teddy is now painting Sandy – and let’s just say that the audience gets to see raw Pamela Franklin in prime condition. She was nineteen just in case you were getting worried. What’s more is that Sandy now appears to have become Teddy’s lover. She’s picked up some more information on the grapevine – that Mary McGregor’s brother has run off to Spain to fight in the Civil War. Jean is delighted by this, as she’s been raising funds for Franco for months. Sandy has noticed some parallels between the Brodie Set and the Fascists – saying they were often like Jean’s own personal army. She notices a more direct parallel when she finally looks at Teddy’s painting of her.

She pretty much breaks it off with him as she gets a moment of clarity. This is increased when she sees Miss Brodie praising Mary McGregor for her brother running off to fight in Spain. And she does this in front of a crowd of impressionable students, preaching to them the importance of service to a cause. This clearly has an effect on young Mary – because the next scene tells us that the girl has run off to Spain! Okay, I really want some kind of spin-off TV series showing Mary attempting to win the Civil War by herself. It’d be like the first season of Sailor Moon – only less villains with cleavage.

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“In the name of the moon and Miss Brodie, I will punish you!”

I want to take back that last statement at once when Sandy leaves a newspaper outside Jean’s house…

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The headline shows that Mary McGregor has been killed! According to Miss Brodie in class sometime later, the train she was on got bombed before she could reach the army. Also according to Miss Brodie, Mary McGregor died a heroine and should be an inspiration to everyone. After this, we see Sandy leaving the classroom and knocking on Miss McKay’s door.

At some end of year school dance, Teddy decides to twist the knife by telling Jean that Gordon is to marry the chemistry teacher Ms Lockhart. It seems he’s finally had enough of being strung along. And Teddy has had enough of Jean and her bullshit. He tells her she’s not in her prime as she believes – she’s a tired old spinster trying to live her life through her students. Her night really doesn’t get much better when she’s called to Miss McKay’s office – and told that she is out of the school for good! This time it’s the Board of Governors who have stepped in – with the news that she has been preaching politics to her students. You have to wonder about Miss McKay’s motivations in this scene. She seems almost a bit too satisfied to have finally got rid of Jean.

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Jean goes back to her classroom, where she finds Sandy waiting for her. She has guessed that one of her girls betrayed her. Sandy calls her out for being more preoccupied with that and who’s to be her proxy in an affair with Teddy Lloyd than the fact that Mary McGregor has died senselessly. Sandy calls her a fool because she intended to join Franco’s army – when her brother was fighting for the other side. Mary died on the way to the wrong army. Sandy also takes the time to reveal that she’s the one who’s been getting frisky with Teddy, and call Jean out for picking girls that appeal to her vanity. Needless to say, Jean now has a pretty good idea of who betrayed her.

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This is a big change from the book, where this conversation doesn’t happen. Jean Brodie never finds out who betrays her – and it’s not until she’s dying that she even considers that it could have been Sandy after all. Also in the book, the reader knows that one of the girls will betray her eventually. Sandy claims she betrays Jean because she believes her to be a toxic influence on young girls. But Pamela Franklin keeps us guessing with Sandy’s real motivations. The way she pauses before saying “you have murdered Mary!” suggests that some of it might be down to jealousy that Teddy still painted Jean when he was sleeping with her. But then again, there’s a point where Sandy suddenly stops telling Jean why she sucks to ask what she will do now. It might be just my opinion, but I get the impression that Sandy still cared for Jean to some extent. After all, she never had to see her again after betraying her. She waits in the classroom because she knows Jean will go there eventually. So is it to read her the riot act, or does she want to make sure the woman is okay?

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Miss Brodie gets her bite back, telling Sandy “I think that is to be your gift; to kill without concern” – and screaming the word ‘assassin’ after her as she walks off. But it seems Jean Brodie was wrong about the last part; the final shot shows a graduating Sandy walking down the street, tears in her eyes. This goes back to Sandy still feeling loyalty to the woman. Even though she was a dangerous influence, Jean Brodie still made Sandy who she was. She nurtured her and motivated her intelligence and insight – unfortunately to her own downfall. Sandy likewise appears to not be ‘killing without concern’. Jean often spoke of heroic actions and romanticising certain things. But real life actions have consequences; so although Sandy did something that would be considered heroic – getting rid of a dangerous influence to girls – she still took away the only thing Jean had left. Even though she saved hundreds of other girls from a toxic teacher, she still ruined a woman’s life.

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The film doesn’t tell us what happens to the other girls after school is over. In the book, Jenny leaves before taking her final exams and becomes an actress. She is combined in the film with a girl called Rose – who is the one groomed for the affair. Rose quite easily shakes off Jean’s influence and lives her life. Monica remains on speaking terms with Sandy and visits Jean when she’s dying. Mary McGregor is likewise combined with a girl in the book called Joyce Emily – who tries unsuccessfully to join the Brodie Set and ends up killed in Spain. Mary’s fate in the book isn’t much better, where she dies in a hotel fire at the age of twenty-three. Sandy meanwhile converts to become a Catholic. She writes a book on psychology and eventually becomes a nun, possibly to atone for her mistakes.

The film was pretty successful back in the day, managing to get some attention at the Oscars. Maggie Smith was nominated for and actually won Best Actress. The rest of the cast sadly were overlooked. Celia Johnson and Pamela Franklin were both nominated for BAFTAs, Johnson taking home the prize. The film also seems to have boosted the success of the play; the original production only running for just under a year on Broadway – but now far more popular. Director Ronald Neame went from this to making The Poseidon Adventure of all things and then retired comfortably. Pamela Franklin unfortunately didn’t get launched onto anything bigger after this, finding herself typecast as a ‘scream queen’ in horror films – before retiring for good in the 80s. But just about everyone involved with the film can be both proud and grateful for it. It might not have been a pop culture sensation or made stars out of its cast; it’s just an all-round solid drama with a good story and a great character study. Even if Maggie Smith is more well-known to audiences these days as Minerva McGonagall or Violent Grantham, to a good portion of the public she will forever be a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.

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Give me a grade of impressionable age and it is mine for life.

*Story? The film changes the structure of the book’s story; the book tells us everything in flashbacks, while the film does everything linearly. This works better than other movies that pull that switch – the most notable being Brian DePalma’s Carrie. A good deconstruction of the Cool Teacher archetype before it even was a thing. B

*Characters? Jean Brodie is a character that’s completely open to interpretation. The film makes her a bit more sympathetic than the book, which allows for even more guessing. Sandy too is fascinating from a character perspective. Even Miss McKay is open to suggestion. Unfortunately, the rest of the Brodie Set are pretty flat and forgettable. A-

*Performances? Maggie Smith’s performance seems to be what Faye Dunaway was going for in Mommie Dearest – playing a naturally OTT person. Instead of making us laugh, Smith instead makes us pity this tragic-minded teacher. Pamela Franklin comes close to stealing the show. Gordon Jackson, Celia Johnson and Robert Stephens could have done with more screen time. A+

*Visuals? This is a film with very understated visuals. Notice the dull greys of the students and staff, contrasting with bold reds and purples for Miss Brodie’s wardrobe. Also pay attention to subtle use of two-shots to have Sandy standing behind Jean. B

*Special Effects? You wouldn’t know it but most of the extras in Jean Brodie’s class were over eighteen, and the desks had to be built higher to make the girls look younger. Good use of make-up to believably make the girls look fourteen and then subtly age them. B+

*Anything Else? N/A

We’re off to see a wizard next. A wonderful wizard. The Wizard of Oz.

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