Thursday, June 18, 2015

Books on Film: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Now in its fifth season, TIFF's Books on Film brings together book and film lovers to examine great cinema that began as outstanding literature. Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company, sits down with filmmakers, authors and experts to discuss the art of adaptation and the sometimes challenging passage from page to screen. This is the last film of the series in 2015.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (U.K./U.S., 1969) directed by Ronald Neame
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Macmillian, 1961)

Miss Jean Brodie (portrayed by the inestimable Maggie Smith) is magnificent. She is independent, fiery, intelligent, sensuous, and if it were not for her disturbing and ultimately destructive admiration of Fascism she would be near perfect. Those of us who only know Smith as the acerbic dowager from Downton Abbey will be pleased to remember her seductive visage in this film.

A teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930s when Fascism, in the guise of Mussolini, had a glamorous, if dangerously misguided, sheen for many, she knows that she is made for  greater things and that the girls that she teaches at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls – the members of the much envied, infamous "Brodie set" – are made for finer things as well. After all, Miss Brodie is in her prime and has never been more sublime.

No matter that Miss Brodie is sometimes controlling and an insufferable snob. Windows opened more than six inches are vulgar. Rolled up sleeves on girls are common crudely suggesting washerwomen about to set about their work. No matter that she manipulates her girls, tortures them emotionally, segregates them by characteristics that she admires or envies. Sandy (Pamela Franklin), who will eventually become Miss Brodie’s betrayer is "full of insight" and a perfect "spy". Jenny (Diane Grayson) who will be “famous” for sex  and Miss Brodie hopes will become the future lover of one of her own lovers. Mary (Jane Carr) is pitifully dim-witted and will, of course, die tragically. Monica (Shirley Steedman) is famous for her "anger", her passion.

Spark comically highlights the dangers of charisma and passion (an essence of the allure of Fascism in the 1930's - when even high ranking politicians and British royalty in the West saw Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against the creeping "evil" of Communism) manifested in the person of Miss Brodie. Her attraction to power and "beauty" overtake the desire for the common good, overtake common sense, at times.
Ms. Brodie, who reputedly had a lover named Hugh who died on Flanders Field during the Great War, juggles not one but two lovers at the school – the sweet but feckless ginger-haired Mr. Lowther (Gordon Jackson) who teaches music and singing and the caddish art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens) who is so prolific in his sexual activity that he has six children by his wife Deirdre and still aggressively pursues Miss Brodie as well as one of her students.

The director clothes the seductive Smith in vibrant sensual colours illustrating her passionate nature - vibrant reds, lush purples, vivid pinks and oranges - and she starkly stands apart from the other dour, grey-clad school mistresses particularly the unfortunately named Miss Gaunt who does the malicious bidding of the headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson).

It is this sort of sexual charisma that alienates some of the other teachers, specifically the headmistress, who must see to it that this tall poppy is cut down to the appropriate size. To this end she encourages the girls to spy on Miss Brodie about her relationship with both men.
In the film, Teddy Lloyd is more obnoxiously portrayed than he is in the novel – he is lecherous and predatory in the book, yes, but on film we see him physically accost both Jean and Sandy and force himself on them in a brutal manner. The climate then was such that this behaviour was tolerated along the lines of “they can’t help themselves”. Today we would have a vastly different perspective on it. 

The magnificent Maggie Smith
Muriel Spark, the author, intersperses the narrative set in the present with flashes of the future fates of both Miss Brodie and the girls and this lends a melancholy air to the book despite the comedic elements (the film does not include the fate of the girls). In the film we never learn that Sandy will convert and become a nun, another girl will be a failed actress, etc ... In the film, the fate of Mary MacGregor is merged with the fate of different girl in the book who dies on route to fight in the Spanish Civil War, inflamed by Miss Brodie's exultations about Franco and fascism. But to illustrate the pernicious nature of Miss Brodie's view, we learn that Mary fled to Spain to fight with her brother in the mistaken belief that he was fighting with Franco's forces rather than against him with the Republicans as Sandy so heatedly informs Miss Brodie. 

Sandy appears inflamed by sexual jealousy and then the fear of Miss Brodie's political ideas. But in the novel, Miss Brodie never learns who her betrayer is. 

It is a more satisfying denouement in the film when Sandy openly confronts Miss Brodie and tells her both that she is Teddy Lloyd's lover (not Jenny as Miss Brodie had perversely hoped) and the one who betrayed her to the head mistress. It is clearer in the film that Miss Brodie is perceived as a dangerous influence and yet Smith's performance is so nuanced and carefully constructed that we can do little more than despise the beady-eyed Sandy when she destroys her teacher's future. 
We regretfully (and perhaps shamefully) sympathize with Miss Brodie's anguished cries in the halls of Marcia Blaine that the icy Sandy is nothing but an assassin. I couldn't help but hear echoes in her operatic cries of "Assasssin!" in the anguish of traditional Italian operas. She very much reminded me of one of these 19th c. operatic heroines - flawed, tragic and somehow eminently desirable.
Muriel in her prime

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