BR: Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The (1969)

March 7, 2015 | By


PrimeMissJeanBrodie1969_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  December 9, 2014

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: Believing to be at the top of her game, the tenured career and romances of an enlightened, free-spirited teacher at a prestigious girls’ school are threatened from an unlikely source.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary by director Ronald Neame and actress Pamela Franklin / Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical and Teaser Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Winner of Best Actress Oscar and British BAFTA Awards (Maggie Smith), and Oscar Nomination for Best Song (“Jean” by Rod McKuen)

Bucking the clichés of the ‘benevolent teacher’  classics like Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) and The Browning Version (1994), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is the flip-side in which vanity, selfishness, and delusion rule. Jay Presson Allen’s 1968 play and subsequent film adaptation (both derived from Murial Spark’s 1961 novel) is no less provocative nor raw than when originally released in 1969.

Prime is reflective of the rule-breaking and boldness that permeated many British film productions during the swinging sixties, but rather than opt for an experimental style and narrative structure, director Ronald Neame stuck with a formal approach, relying on his hugely talented cast to deliver the jolts which titillated audiences and branded the film with a Mature rating – not for smut, but for being dicey in its language, and containing an improper liaison between teacher and student.

In spite of being a sharp thorn in the spine of head mistress Mackay (Celia Johnson), Jean Brodie (a riveting Maggie Smith) is a fortysomething spinster who’s managed to retain tenure at a conservative girls school, and apply a free-form approach to edifying her class about life and love through art, culture, and history. The lack of a formal teaching syllabus is tolerated because of her class’ devotion and successful graduation stats; and because she’s a rare teacher in being able to instill passion and interest in artistic subjects, or as she puts it to each new class, ‘placing old heads on young bodies.’

Brodie’s also engaged in an emotional threesome, courting the interest of music teacher Gordon Lowther (character actor Gordon Jackson, finally getting a love interest on screen), and shrugging off passionate advances of a genuine former flame, art teacher Teddy Lloyd (a dashing Robert Stephens). She’s also a ridiculous romantic, exploiting the personal tragedy of a lost love killed in WWI as a lead-in to lectures on love.



The pre-pubescent girls are as malleable as clay, which Brodie shapes into her own ‘Brodie Girls’ posse in the vacuum of a boys-free school where all social gatherings are comprised of classmates and staff; no parents are ever present, and certainly no males beyond teachers and board members. Things go awry when her brightest and most dependable student, Sandy (Pamela Franklin) becomes a back-stabber, or rather initializes a preemptive strike to end what she sees as a destructive force.

Brodie is a massively complex character, and Smith portrays her pomposity, arrogance, bravery, and eruptive passions with great skill. Her dimness, however, extends three-fold: underestimating the complex machinations in mature-minded teens like Sandy; playing the sexy, unobtainable woman ‘in her prime’ beyond its natural term-limit, thereby risking the loss of two lovers and a future husband; and being utterly politically naïve. Lloyd is especially blunt one night in attacking her preposterous idolizing of Italy’s fascist Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, and Spain’s Il Jefe, General Franco, whom she regales to her students as great nation builders, and classic warriors from ‘pure’ stock.

The tragedy that ends Brodie’s reign is more shocking for the way she reassesses a tragic death as heroism instead of being the direct result of her own negligence, but her accuser, Sandy, is never portrayed as a one-dimensional traitor: the film’s last shot is emotionally wrenching because it confirms Brodie’s “assassin” was nevertheless wrestling with a palpable measure of genuine guilt. The tears that streak down Sandy’s face as she stoically walks home also signifies her realization that the joy and affection she initially enjoyed in being a ‘Brodie Girl’ can never be shared with future students.

Neame’s former career as a top cinematographer – especially with Technicolor – ensure the formalism of Presson Allen’s script is transcended by Ted Moore’s elegant camera movements, beautiful compositions, striking use of colour (Brodie is the only teacher who not only wears modish outfits, but dares to favour blazing colours and patterns to match her flaming red hair).

And then there’s Neame’s brilliant use of close-ups, a skill that can’t be underestimated, because each sequence is so meticulously plotted and blocked, every time Neame has editor Norman Savage (Doctor Zhivago) cut to a close-up, it’s like an emotional gunshot, maximizing the hesitation, fear, and secret vulnerabilities of the screen-filling character(s). Prime may be remembered for its story, performances, and Oscar Award, but it’s also a filmmaking manual on crafting mature drama, and exposing rather than exploiting the intimate facets of terribly flawed and realistic portrayed adults.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a sharp clean transfer of the film, retaining the original grain which gives Brodie a sense of antique and hint of docu-drama, and there’s only one shot where Fox’ technicians may have applied a bit too much DNR: a close-up shot of Jean Brodie tearing up during a slide-show has rather mushy dark blacks and greens in the background.

The BR junks the pseudo-stereo mix that appeared on Fox’ 2004 DVD; the retained original mono mix is very clean and crisp. Also ported over from Fox’ DVD are the teaser & theatrical trailers, but omitted is a brief 26-image stills gallery. Unique to TT’s disc is an isolated mono music & effects track that preserves the choral pieces and Rod McKuen’s score.

The other gem among the retained extras is the 2004 DVD commentary track with director Neame, and co-star Pamela Franklin who retired from acting in 1981. Neame covers the film’s production and his early years as a cameraman for David Lean (In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, and Blithe Spirit), while Franklin gives a candid snapshot of her career as a former child actress in films like The Innocents (1961) and The Lion (1962) before her theatrical roles dwindled, and she tumbled into episodic TV in the U.S. The tragedy of her career is that as the British film industry imploded in the 1970s, Franklin’s move to the U.S. – perhaps a career survival maneuver – didn’t pan out with roles deserving of her talent, because she never managed to find a character as complex and transformative as Sandy. The Legend of Hell House (1973) was another high-profile Fox production, but her role as a vulnerable medium wasn’t enough; at best, that film reinforced her cult status as a heroine within the horror realm in films and TV productions.

Ronald Neame is best-remembered for the classic disaster film The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the sharp thriller The Odessa File (1974), and the disaster stinker Meteor (1979), but his early directorial efforts include the witty The Million Pound Note / Man with a Million (1984), and a pair of classic Alec Guinness films: The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960).

Other films and teleplays based on Murial Sparks’ work includes Identikit / The Driver’s Seat (1974), Memento Mori (1975), and Nasty Habits (1977). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was also adapted into a 7-part mini-series in 1978.

Jay Presson Allen’s screenplays include Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Cabaret (1972), Funny Lady (1975), Prince of the City (1981), and Deathtrap (1982). She also created the long-running TV series Family (1976-1980).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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