Back to School (3): A Teacher’s Prime
Here’s a pedagogue to reckon with: “I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” These words spoken by the title teacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) give one the impression of a dedicated and talented molder of minds, decidedly eccentric but convincingly sincere, who’ll transcend a rigid curriculum to tap into the hidden recesses of her charge’s souls. And when the character – from Muriel Spark’s novel – is played by Vanessa Redgrave (London stage), Zoe Caldwell (a Tony® winner on Broadway) or Maggie Smith (an Oscar® winner for the memorable film version available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray), you get the feeling that the job will get done with amazingly positive results. But Jean Brodie has her blindspots (she idealizes the “political efficiency” of dictators Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco) and vulnerabilities (with brittle indelicacy she juggles her romantic attentions between two decidedly different male colleagues), and the teacher/pupil relationships here may lead to wrong directions and tragic outcomes. As skillfully directed by Ronald Neame from Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie rightly questions rigidity and authority, revealing that having the best of intentions doesn’t rule out lacking common sense and basic empathy. Being “a teacher, first, last and always” may be a defiant mantra for Miss Brodie of Edinburgh’s Marcia Blaine School for Girls – and the magnificent Smith in her prime delivers all the passion and chills inherent in that declaration, but being human matters more.