“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1961) by Scottish author Muriel Spark has generated stage, television and film adaptations.
The 1969 film, directed by Ronald Neame, stars Maggie Smith as the charismatic Miss Jean Brodie, a dedicated school teacher whose influence on her students is undeniable. She welcomes each class with a speech that articulates her devotion to them: “Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life. You girls are my vocation. ... I am dedicated to you in my prime.”
Miss Brodie’s words inspire her students, particularly the select ones known throughout the school as the Brodie set. However, by the end of the film these words, which are remembered by Sandy (Pamela Franklin), one of the Brodie set, also have a dark and sinister meaning.
Miss Brodie’s progressive teaching methods clash with the conservative philosophy of the Marcia Blaine Girls’ School where she teaches. Miss Brodie’s lessons are about life, love, and culture, and the stories she tells about past loves and recent trips abroad often take the place of her students’ regular lessons. The school’s headmistress, Miss MacKay (Celia Johnson), repeatedly tries to have Miss Brodie dismissed on the grounds that she is an unsuitable influence.
The film visually establishes Miss Brodie’s individuality from the start. The opening shot shows a row of houses, most with black trim in the front. Miss Brodie’s house has red steps and trim, which sets her apart immediately. Her dress also sets her apart. The girls at school wear grey uniforms, while Miss Brodie wears purples, reds, oranges, and pinks, which capture her bright spirit. Her sense of freedom is also conveyed in her bicycle riding.
All of these elements reflect Miss Brodie’s distinctiveness, sense of romance, and passionate nature. She values beauty, truth, and art over safety, and she makes this philosophy tangible when she puts a picture by the great Italian painter Giotto over a poster with the slogan “Safety First.”
Miss Brodie is a romantic who inspires the love of the married art master, Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens), and the music teacher, Gordon Lowther (Gordon Jackson). She is also passionate about Italy. She romanticizes its culture, its art, its architecture, and its fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. Later, she romanticizes Francisco Franco and his supporters, who in her eyes are models of dedication, action, heroism, courage and gallantry.
In every aspect of her life, Miss Brodie sees herself as dedicated to a cause and outside of moral codes. She may mean well, but she does not see that she also causes harm. She is a marvelous study in contradictions. She admires insight but lacks self-knowledge. She advocates for independence but supports fascism. She is free-spirited but upholds rules of etiquette. She encourages her girls to think for themselves but is dismayed when they actually do.
Smith won an Oscar for her performance as she beautifully captures the independence, charm and danger of Miss Brodie’s character.