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UK 1969
Directed by
Ronald Neame
120 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Based on the novel by Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1932. Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith), a free-thinking teacher at a conservative school for girls adopts unconventional teaching methods including proselytizing her pro-fascist political views and sharing the history of her amours with her charges, all with a purpose of making them the “crème de la crème”. This wins her the admiration of pupils Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Mary (Jane Carr), and Jenny (Diane Grayson) but puts her at odds with the school's dull old headmistress (Celia Johnson).

Based originally on Muriel Sparks’ novel of the same name, winnowed through Jay Presson Allen’s stage play, the script holds our attention through the quality of the writing and Maggie Smith’s performance although both are a little strained by today’s standards. Although, being no oil painting, as they say, Smith is somewhat improbable as an object of sexual desire of art teacher (Robert Stephens) she is compelling as the dedicated, but snobbish and self-deluding teacher and deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress (Vanessa Redgrave who played the role in the stage was originally cast but pulled out). It is, as they also say, a tour de force of high flown theatrics. Also reflecting the change in tastes the Lolita-ish relationship between the art-master and Sandy probably would not be able to be filmed in as unself-conscious a manner as it is here.

Neame, who was cinematographer through the '30s and '40s is an at best diligent director and the film is rather stodgy in its unfolding with the important transition of some 3 years somewhat clumsy handled. In fact little coheres dramatically, not in Brodie's sexual antics nor in Sandy's change of heart, but Smith’s performance carries all before it.

FYI: The syrupy Rod McKuen theme song that appears in the film's end credits was, hard as it is to believe, a hit in its day.




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