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Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie  

I have a somewhat perverse delight while watching one of these supposedly proper British period dramas, whenever something occurs which does not seem right; something which seems a little off, or perhaps sinister. The film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, based on Muriel Spark`s novel, is one which seems to be the standard charming, pleasant British portrayal, yet soon reveals a core of nastiness and controversy underneath.

Maggie Smith plays Miss Brodie, a teacher in an all-girls school of the 1930`s, who is both liked and loathed for her unconventional teaching methods. She is the sort of teacher who seems as if she genuinely adores her charges, willing to stray from the curriculum in order to give her girls what she feels is true education. She also spends her free time, and weekends, with some of her "special girls" for outings which are not officially part of the lesson plan. She isn`t merely doing a job; "I am a teacher, first, last, and always!" And another one of her sayings involves the idea that truth, goodness and beauty come first, apparently not the sorts of things the headmistress seems to espouse. So, it seems reasonably clear that Brodie is a cool, anti-authoritarian teacher, and that this will be a delightful portrayal of a charming teacher who beats the system. Right?

Actually, in a very subtle, restrained way, you will gradually catch on to what Jean Brodie really teaches her girls. Her version of "history" is telling these pre-teen girls stories of her affairs with a man who later died in Flanders Field. She gives the girls overtly fanciful ideals of romance, and in a subtle fashion, sex, which are enough to charge the girls already fevered, pubescent imaginations. And finally, she introduces the subject of Mussolini, praising his orderliness and greatness in leadership, and also supports Franco`s side in the Spanish Civil War. All this is done without the approval of the headmistress, a woman who has always wanted to get rid of Brodie, and now has the opprotunity to do so. And there are even more shocking developments, which show just how dangerous this seemingly harmless teacher really is. This is enough for a series of betrayals to take place, including one by one of Brodie`s own students which is truly wicked.

Maggie Smith gives a performance which may be an acquired taste. Brodie`s accent embodies both sophistication and utter pomposity, and she is certainly a very extreme and daffy personality, even before danger strikes. Yet this is not a bad performance, for it is entirely appropriate. Jean Brodie wants to give the impression that she is better than those backward headmistresses and teachers, and that what she is doing is a noble cause, yet in reality, she is a vain, power-hungry person. This is really a story about a fascist leader, as everything Brodie does is an homage to such charismatic dictators. Many of her speeches seem like political propaganda, obviously whenever she rallies the girls to support Franco`s side of the war, but even the speeches before, for she obviously intends to indoctrinate a particular set of values to her girls, regardless of the consequences. And she is a very slippery character as well, as she lies and fudges about many things, about past and present paramours, and her intent is clearly to create an admirable, sophisicated, image for herself, as any leader would for propaganda purposes.

This is a very amazing film, slow, subtle, restrained, yet with much complication and irony, that viewers should find the patience to sit through this, as it will be well worth it.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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