Long before John Keating inspired a wave of desk mounting defiance, another teacher was sticking it to the system and drawing their pupils into a beguiling and bewitching cult of personality. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, let’s go back to when a free-thinking, free-spirited and, admittedly, worryingly pro-fascist Miss Jean Brodie was in her prime.
In 1930s Edinburgh, a headstrong young teacher at the prestigious Marcia Blaine School for Girls flouts convention and the curriculum, indoctrinating her willing and impressionable pupils with her solipsistic and overly-romanticized view of the world. But as she imbues her charges with her own philosophy, she sows the seeds of her own undoing.
Often jokingly – and unfairly viewed as a one-woman show – there’s no getting around the fact that Maggie Smith is a towering presence in this movie, a powerhouse performance of manners, mannerisms and immutable conviction, she breathes vibrant life into the extraordinarily compelling character of Jean Brodie, an unapologetic feminist and yet fascist sympathiser and apologist. Yet Smith herself is surrounded and supported by an excellent cast including the likes of Gordon Jackson as Brodie’s would-be suitor Mr Lowther, Robert Stephens as art teacher Teddy Lloyd who has long lusted after Jean Brodie and the icily austere Celia Johnson as headmistress and Brodie’s nemesis Miss MacKay.
Enraptured by the free-spirited, carefree attitude of their teacher, the film charts the rise of ‘the Brodie Set’ Monica (Shirley Steedman), Jenny (Diane Grayson) and Mary (Jane Carr) and Sandy (Pamela Franklin). Ultimately, it’s the rise of these young women, moulded in her own image, that brings about Brodie’s own downfall as they embrace her doctrine of independent individualism, freed from the moral shackles of convention and authority.
There’s a dark irony at the heart of the story in the way Sandy, played superbly by Pamela Franklin, becomes both the epitome and antithesis of everything Jean Brodie aspired to create. It is she who realises the stark hypocrisy at the heart of Jean Brodie’s world view, lauding the virtue of independence while, in fact, manipulating ‘her girls’ weaknesses and insecurities and crushing any genuine independence while lavishly rewarding loyalty and adherence to her own ideals.
The slow burn reveal is that Miss Jean Brodie is, in fact, the monster of the piece, not the hero. Not just a pro-fascist advocate but a fascist allegory, a ruthless autocrat in her own right. Intoxicated by her sense of self-righteous superiority, her dismissal and callous disregard for anyone and anything else which fails to conform to her will distorts and damages the lives of all around her and yet Maggie Smith brings such humanity and charisma and charm to the role that you still find yourself feeling sympathetic to her as her world crumbles around her.
The film’s closing moments are both tragic and triumphant, in her greatest success, Miss Brodie has forged the instrument of her own destruction. Bound for life in bitter enmity and regret, “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” is a potent, profound and wittily sophisticated study of the way powerful personalities attract, interact and damage each other, against a backdrop of the beginnings of tumultuous social and political change.