Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

1969, UK, directed by Ronald Neame

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes the pleasant glow of the Mr. Chips schooldays template - a template updated with some regularity - and subverts it at every turn: the inspirational teacher here is inspiring in all the wrong ways, while her male colleague is busy seducing the pupils of the all-girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh (when they aren't actively being thrown at him by Miss Brodie, eager to remove herself from his radar). The comprehensive dismantling of well-worn clichés is, for the most part, quite bracing, though Miss Brodie's admiration of Mussolini and, later, Franco, is a little overdone; it's an overly knowing wink in the direction of the audience, armed with the benefit of hindsight.

Despite the use of Edinburgh locations, the film occasionally feels rather stagy - and the action, which spans several years, often seems to advance in fits and starts - but it is redeemed by its impeccable cast, particularly Maggie Smith in the lead, who manages the difficult task of humanising a thoroughly disagreeable character without softening her rough, imperious and ultimately tragic edges. Celia Johnson - in a radical turnabout from her most famous role in Brief Encounter - is also excellent as the headmistress, Ms. McKay.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States