Friday, July 2, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Maggie Smith wows in this film that is incredibly different from what you may expect.

It's easy to look at the description of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and assume it is another entry into the "Offbeat teacher inspires students to live life to the fullest" type of film, but this film almost serves as a counter point to such films.

Maggie Smith stars as Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher in 1930's Scotland who encourages her students to live and to love, teaching them about art and creativity, even though she's a history teacher. She also has a group of 4 students who follows her around outside of class, the "Brodie Girls" who are noted for being unusual and odd.

But the film veers into unexpected territory as it becomes obvious that Jean Brodie is really a spinster who wraps herself up in the mystery and mystique of being a woman in her "prime" and creating this mythology about herself. If you've seen the film Cabaret, it's very similar to Sally Bowles. She exerts this onto her students, defining their traits and trying to give them ideas about who they are, even trying to steer one girl into an affair with a married teacher with whom she has recently finished an affair of her own.

Eventually, one "Brodie Girl" named Sandy (Pamela Franklin) catches on to the falsehood surrounding the beloved teacher and a conflict develops between the two and the film ultimately forced you with a situation with neither character is inherently good or bad.

The film wonderfully exhibits a grey morality about the characters, is Jean Brodie a well meaning teacher or a psychotic spinster with a God complex? Or Sandy a maturing girl looking to bring down a potentially dangerous teacher or a jealous child? The film would work in every angle, and it's to the credit of the two main female actresses, Maggie Smith and Pamela Franklin that it works so well as both gives so much nuance and layers to their characters.

Maggie Smith actually won the Oscar for the film, and it's deservedly so. It's not easy to play a character and do so in a way that supports so many interpretations as to the nature of the character, but she pulls it off wonderfully, playing Jean Brodie as dramatic, inspiring, and witty, but also giving healthy doses of insecurity and arrogance.

It's sad that Pamela Franklin didn't receive an Oscar nomination, because it would have been deserved, having to carry a character through woman hood and effectively portraying the developing cynicism that causes her to see through Jean Brodie's facade.

It's a wonderful movie that could spawn hours of discussion as to the nature of the characters and it features two astounding performances, so watch it if you can.

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