In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. For our eleventh recommendation, we dip back into academia once more as students everywhere begin their summer holidays, taking a look at an irresistible Muriel Spark story about idolization, predestination, and the crème de la crème: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Muriel Spark’s novel is an all-time classic, and one of the more memorable stories about the people you idolize in childhood turning out to be disappointments later in life. Jean Brodie is an iconic character in her own right, with her platitudes and her unbridled romanticism towards all things artistic and beautiful. Delightful in the moment, until you realize what a walking contradiction she is. Despite claiming to be the most progressive staff member at the conservative Marcia Blane School for Girls, she is obsessed with fascists like Mussolini and Franco, and thinks life is so predestined in the Calvinist fashion that everyone will grow up to be exactly the people she wants them to be. Though not evil in heart, her worldview is so misguided that you understand why she must be defeated in the end. She is not the positive role model she believes she is, and that may be worse than being a bad role model deliberately.
This film, which won Maggie Smith her first Oscar, is based on a play adaptation of Spark’s novel, so unfortunately it is not as stylistically and theologically daring as her written word. The novel cleverly plays with time, using extensive flash-forwards to enrich its themes and give a sense of how “the Brodie set” grows in and out of their teacher’s shadow in the years after their graduation (whereas this film ends when they graduate). The film’s only radical temporal move is not to show time passing, or the original Brodie set moving to the senior school. The scene with a topless Sandy posing for Mr. Lloyd catches you completely off guard, because prior to that Pamela Franklin is playing Sandy as a 12-year-old. You don’t realize that this topless scene is happening years later into the story until a few scenes later, when it’s established that Miss Brodie has a new set of girls under her tutelage. It’s disarming and rather daring for Neame to do this, but I like it. It’s a small nod to the more radical shifts Spark employs and gives Miss Brodie’s tragic fall greater scope. Sandy—as Miss Brodie’s eventual nemesis—becomes disillusioned not in one semester, but over several years of her dependable loyalty being unappreciated. Franklin’s casting is particularly genius because she really does look convincing as both a 12-year-old and someone nearing the end of her adolescence.
So even though it’s not as brilliant as the novel, I think the story is so intelligent that it works regardless. The way Miss Brodie is exposed as a ridiculous fraud is deeply melancholic, because it’s so damn hard to dislike her, problematic politics and all. It is right that she is exposed and dismissed, and yet you wish her idealism and deep love of art and culture could still be passed down somehow. It’s a story about sacrifices made for the greater good, and how genuinely hard such sacrifices can be when a lot of good must be thrown out with the bad. To make these sacrifices means that you have grown up—it is perhaps the indication that you have passed the threshold into adulthood. That’s why Sandy’s maturation is a satisfying one to watch. She becomes the exception to Miss Brodie’s dictum that all her pupils are hers for life. The allegory of breaking away from the Miss Brodies of our lives is so perfect, and both reading it on the page and watching it here gets to me so much. Growing up and leaving our childhoods behind is such a furious tangle of triumph and heartbreak, and this seemingly innocuous story about a capricious teacher and her doting girls captures it all so succinctly, and so beautifully.
Oh, and of course Maggie is exceptional here. The way she trills her lines and walks with that impeccable posture is so perfect. I totally buy the charisma, and believe impressionable schoolgirls would have fallen for her, too.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is available to own on DVD from 20th Century Fox.