The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ★★★★★

Watched as part of the January 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Andy Craik's master list
#30: A film with a British female main protagonist (in honor of this list's creator's partner turning 40 in 2017)

2017 movie viewings, #30. I've been putting off writing this review, because I suspected I'd have a bunch to say and that it would take forever to get done, so I've promised myself to keep things short and sweet today as an enticement to finally doing this write-up. And the reason I suspected this review would go on and on, of course, is because this 1969 Oscar-winning film (based on the 1968 Broadway play, which in turn was based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark) is a nearly perfect example of bringing something really talky and thought-provoking to the visual world of film; and since I do literary things as a career, when I'm not here watching movies as simply a fanboy hobby, of course movies that successfully translate giant chunks of text into an engaging cinematic experience are always going to be my favorite movies of all.

It's essentially a deep character study of the titular woman in question, an opinionated and headstrong fortysomething teacher at a private girls' school in 1930s Scotland; known as the "most liberal" staff member of this notoriously conservative school (which, to be clear, is still not saying a lot), she is full of prissy little quips about how to "properly" grow up into an active and socially engaged adult, and every year she takes a handful of pupils under her wing and develops a bizarre relationship with them, somewhere between a loving mother and a harsh military commander. (It's no coincidence, after all, that the pre-WW2 Brodie is such an unabashed fan of fascist leaders Mussolini and Franco, and extols their virtues about discipline and sacrifice on a daily basis to her teenage students.) What this film is, then, is a complex and multilayered look at several years in Brodie's middle-aged life (what she considers her "prime" years, hence the movie's title), as she has an on-again, off-again secret sexual relationship with the school's married art teacher, increasingly clashes with the school's dean, and witnesses one of her former 15-year-olds grow into an opinionated, headstrong young woman too, and essentially execute an emotional coup to become the next Miss Jean Brodie herself.

A mere description of the plot turns, though, will never do this emotionally rich movie justice, which is the whole point; the reason to watch this movie is for the complicated, symbol-infused screenplay that holds it all together, the way these fully realized characters bounce and clash against each other while being influenced by such things as the passage of time, the escalation of wartime hostility, and the shifting roles they all play in each other's lives. An unforgettable story just unto itself, it's mere icing on the cake that it just so happens to contain full-frontal nudity too, a shock for a 1969 Oscar-winning prestige film that 100 percent earns its right to be there (it nicely illustrates a metaphorical scene about the angry former student Sandy slowly usurping her former mentor's place); and while honoring my promise to myself to not get too much further into it all, let's say that I could write another five pages about the complicated, conflict-riddled relationships seen here, and the things this movie says about the link between authoritarianism and Victorian-era theories about public education. A film that deserves to be better remembered than it is, and the movie that garnered eventual "national treasure" Maggie Smith her first Oscar, this is an absolute must-see for film students trying to improve their writing skills, as well as anyone else who simply enjoys a well-written screenplay that leaves you with a ton of things to chew on afterwards.

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