Travelling through time with the poetic documentary ”From Scotland with Love” reminded me of another film, the classic ”Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, directed by Ronald Neame. It took me 45 years to watch it – at what would be approximately 15 years beyond my prime – but one of the qualities of this film is that it’s ageless.
Miss Jean Brodie is a headstrong woman and an unusual teacher at Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh. A teacher of history and literature with a flair for extra curricular education – that of life – a charismatic figure against the backdrop of a private, conservative school in the 1930s; Miss Brodie recurrently finds herself in trouble with the headmistress who deplores her methods and harasses her into resigning.
Jean Brodie, a young woman ”in her prime”, finds herself caught up in a love triangle between her ex-lover, Mr Lloyd (the arts master) and her current affection, Mr Lowther (the music master) – but she refuses to commit into a formal relationship with either because, as she keeps repeating:
”I’m a teacher. I’m a teacher. First, last and always.”
Miss Brodie is totally dedicated to her pupils – but not all of them. She clearly has favourites and does not hesitate to introduce them a such: Jenny, Sandy, Monica and Mary McGregor are the chosen four, they are the crème de la crème.
Maggie Smith, who was 35 at the time, gave a majestic, multi-award winning performance. I am not sure exactly what would be defined as ”prime” in the 1930s, neither is the actual age of her character ever mentioned, but watching her move between perfect composure, romantic grievance, passionate admiration and flushed excitement so effortlessly, it was an utterly enjoyable and convincing performance – Miss Smith was definitely in her ”prime”.
She is supported by an excellent cast: Robert Stephens as Teddy Lloyd, the arts master, her ex-lover, married, six children, second-rate artist, still infatuated with Miss Brodie. Gordon Jackson as Gordon Lowther, the music master, devoted to Catholicism and to Miss Brodie, in equal measure. Celia Johnson as Miss Mackay, the headmistress, would love to see the back of Miss Brodie, sooner rather than later.
And the crème de la crème performances by the girls: Jenny (Diane Grayson), Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Monica (Shirley Steedman) and Mary McGregor (Jane Carr).
Watch Miss Brodie addressing her class in her flawless, elegant, graceful and ritualistic manner:
”Little girls, I’m in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders.
All my pupils are the crème de la crème.
Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.
I’m dedicated to you in my prime. And my summer in Italy has convinced me that I am truly in my prime.”
”Define status quo: Staying the same to the point of petrification. P-E-T-R-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N.
I do not intend to devote my prime to petrification.”
”One’s prime is the moment one is born for.”
– Duck liver, Miss Brodie?
– Pâté de Foie Gras, Jenny. The French have a genius for food but I doubt French women will ever get the vote…!
”She always looks so extreme…”
– Do any of you girls remember what the followers of Mussolini are called?
– That is correct. F-A-S-C-I-S-T-I. And Mussolini is called: Il Duce. That is to say, the leader.
”To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ”ex” meaning ”out” and ”duco” : ”I lead”. To me education is simply a leading out of what is already there.”
”You girls, are my life now. I am the potter and you are my pride. You are shaping up. Soon you will graduate to the senior school and I will no longer teach you but you will always be Brodie girls.”
”Generalissimo Franco is called El Jefe, the Chief.
J-E-F-E. The ”J” is silent. El Jefe.
He is a dedicated man. He has dedicated himself to a cause as I dedicated myself to you.
Franco’s army comprises the best elements of Spain and her supporters. They are committed to heroic action.”
”I am not interested in human imperfection. I am interested in Beauty, in Art, in Truth.”
Watch in wonderment at the harsh reality that a learned, gifted, liberal teacher can romanticize over the power of the uniform.
Here, Miss Brodie is showing slides from her trip to Italy. Mussolini precedes Leonardo da Vinci’s David by a slide, Miss Brodie’s voice pulsating with emotion.
Rebellion, desperation or a bit of both: a Brodie girl in Teddy Lloyd’s studio (and bed). Youth vs Prime.
Finally, watch in amazement at the colourful, figure hugging garderobe of Miss Brodie (costume design by Joan Bridge and Elizabeth Haffenden) making Maggie Smith’s already remarkable physique, standing out even more (if ever possible…)