Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Jean Brodie: 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. ~The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
The influence, for good or ill, of a charismatic teacher can never be underestimated. Such is the theme of the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, starring Maggie Smith, who flourishes in every direction as the schoolmarm with the double life. Although a teacher at a 1930's austere Presbyterian girls' school in Edinburgh, Jean Brodie is unable to keep her private amours from overflowing into the classroom. Although she breaks off an affair with the art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, on the grounds that he is married and the father of six, she continues to carry on a not-so-discreet dalliance with the art teacher, Mr. Lowther. Being obsessed with Teddy, she cannot bring herself to marry Lowther, and ultimately manipulates her students into acting out her romantic fantasies.

The film focuses on how certain girls are adversely affected by being brought into Jean Brodie's inner circle. Mary MacGregor is inspired by Miss Brodie's love of Franco to run off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, only to be killed. Jean tries to groom Jenny into taking her place in Mr. Lloyd's bed but it is Sandy, plain and practical, who ends up being his mistress. Teddy Lloyd, however, is still obsessed with Miss Brodie; Sandy, frustrated and jealous, reports Brodie to the school authorities for being a corrupting influence upon the students.

The novel upon which the film is based was written by Muriel Spark, a convert to Catholicism. Spark's book brings out many more allusions to religious faith than does the film, and the differences between Calvinism and Catholicism. According to one critique:
The novel's second theme shows Sandy's development from a young girl who hesitantly accepts Brodie's declarations, to a teenager who questions the limits of her loyalty to Brodie, to a cloistered nun. As a young girl Sandy is obsessed with understanding Brodie's psychology. However, as Sandy matures, her fascination with Brodie gives way to the realization of her moral obligation to the welfare of others and compels her to put an end to Brodie's tenure at the school, thus preventing her from influencing another set of impressionable girls. Spark's characters rarely, however, act from a single motive, and the author suggests that Sandy's impulse to act against Brodie is also tinged with jealousy. The novel's third theme centers on Roman Catholicism. Brodie abhors Catholicism and tells her students that it is a religion for those who do not wish to think for themselves. In authorial commentary, Spark notes that this is an odd view for someone such as Brodie and suggests that Brodie was best suited to the Roman Catholic church, which might have refined her excesses.
In the film Miss Brodie discovers it is Sandy who has betrayed her but in the book she never finds out, even as she later visits Sandy at the monastery. While Miss Brodie never finds the Faith which might have given her peace, Muriel Spark saw her own conversion to Catholicism as the force which most shaped her into a writer. She died in 2006; Jean Brodie lives on as one of her most colorful, eccentric and tragic characters. Both book and film are compelling meditations in how subtly and easily children can be psychologically seduced by those to whom their education and moral formation have been entrusted.


Debra Murphy said...

Maggie Smith is fabulous as Brodie, but the sometimes overbearing and outdated music score drove me nuts nuts nuts.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Debra, I agree that the score is quite dated.

Leslie Carroll said...

One of my favorite plays (and I've performed in it). Brodie is such a misguided protagonist, and that makes her all the more compelling.

elena maria vidal said...

Leslie, I agree!