Ronald Neame’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was something of an oddity for the movie year of 1969 in that it tackles subject matter of a kind that was only then being explored in mainstream movies. In 1969, the MPAA ratings system with its various classifications — G, M, R, X — was only a year old. (It was also a little differently applied than it is now. Jean Brodie was rated M — later replaced by GP, then PG, then split into PG and PG-13 — despite containing nudity and definitely adult subject matter. At the time, M really did mean “mature.”) Two years earlier this film would simply not have been “approved” for U.S. distribution. In this regard, Jean Brodie was very modern, but it was made in a pretty conservative — even academic — style by Neame, who had been in the British film industry since 1933. That may actually be in the film’s favor, since it feels fairly timeless and has dated less than a lot of movies from the era — at least, if we overlook the Rod McKuen music. It does, however, make Jean Brodie a little stylistically dull.
Regardless, the film does contain Maggie Smith’s iconic — and Oscar winning — performance as the title character, and what a character it is. The portrait of a teacher in 1932 Edinburgh is awfully well done. Miss Brodie is a woman with a lot of barely formed and obviously ill-considered notions with which she fills the heads of her students with no sense of responsibility. (Her fondness for Messrs. Mussolini and Hitler, however, was not that uncommon in 1932.) To her, the students are less students than they are her followers, but the danger of the character — who, of course, thinks of herself as some kind of radical progressiveness — lies in her actual appeal. And that undeniable appeal stands in even starker contrast against the hidebound nature of the school itself. It’s a fascinating creation. That the film doesn’t quite live up to the character or Smith’s performance is a small price to pay.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Sunday, Sept. 1, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.