Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) ****

My wife gets the credit for this one. Never in a million years would I have randomly selected a movie from the ‘60’s called “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” That would have been my loss, because this movie is amazing! It falls under the category of movies about unconventional, inspiring teachers, e.g. “Dead Poets Society,“ but it is way more complex than most.

Maggie Smith plays Jean Brodie, a handsome, vivacious force of nature. She teaches at a girls’ school in the 1930’s and is beloved by the students and the male faculty. Rather than teaching straight history to her girls, she talks to them about art, poetry, and love, and takes them on walks around historic places. She sees a broad role for herself as an educator. As she tells one girl who admits to having no particular interests, “It is my job to give you interests.” It’s an admirable attitude, and Miss Brodie is truly devoted to her girls. She is also a woman ahead of her time, and quite the libertine. That she is able to get away with the occasional dalliance with a male faculty member is a testament to how widely she is admired by parents and former students.

There is a dark side to Miss Brodie’s dedication, though. She is equally devoted to her own romantic vision of herself, and as the story wears on we see that she is perfectly willing to sacrifice her girls on the alter of that vision. She is fond of telling her students that she is in her “prime,” and the implication is that they are lucky to be on the receiving end of wisdom from a woman in her prime. The sad part is that she is so self-deluded that she is incapable of seeing anything she does with her girls as wrong, even though it becomes apparent that Jean Brodie is capable of being a very bad influence indeed.

What makes this story so good is that Jean is neither completely good nor bad. Her failings are great, but she is also a great teacher. She offers her girls something besides rote memorization of historical facts. Doubtless most of her students grow up and look back on her as a great influence in their lives. On the other hand, she is enamored of fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco for some reason, and she takes every opportunity to impress her students with how great those leaders are. She gives a lot of herself to her girls, but it sometimes seems that she is mainly interested in her students as an audience for herself.

I find it interesting that so many people name “Dead Poets Society” as their favorite movie. Clearly there is something resonant in the story of an unconventional teacher inspiring his students in extraordinary ways. I’ll bet we all wish we had had a teacher like Robin Williams’s Mr. Keating. The thing about that movie, though, is that it is rather simplistic. There is never any doubt that Mr. Keating is right, and the hard-ass father who wants to send his son to military school is wrong. “Dead Poets Society” is about the value of questioning things and debating different ideas, but the movie really leaves no room for debate. On the other hand, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” gives the audience the opportunity at the end to judge for ourselves just how badly Jean Brodie transgressed. It’s the kind of thought-provoking film that I think Mr. Keating would approve of.

4 stars

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