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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a 1969 British drama film directed by Ronald Neame from a screenplay written by Jay Presson Allen, adapted from her own stage play, which was in turn based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. The film stars Maggie Smith in the title role as an unrestrained teacher at a girls’ school in Edinburgh. Celia Johnson, Robert Stephens, Pamela Franklin, and Gordon Jackson are featured in supporting roles.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie premiered at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or and was released in cinemas in the UK on 24 February 1969 and in the US on 2 March 1969. The film received positive reviews with major acclaim drawn towards Smith’s performance, although it was a box office disappointment, grossing $3 million on a $2.76 million budget.
Jean Brodie is a teacher at an all-girls school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1930s. Brodie is known for her tendency to stray from the school’s curriculum, to romanticize fascist leaders like Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, and to believe herself to be in the prime of life. Brodie devotes her energy and attention to girls she sees as special or moldable, who are referred to as the “Brodie Set”. At the film’s outset, the Brodie Set is composed of four 12-year-old junior school girls: Sandy, Monica, Jenny, and Mary.
The Brodie Set often go to art museums, theatre, and have picnics on the school lawn, to the chagrin of the school’s austere headmistress Emmeline Mackay, who dislikes that the girls are cultured to the exclusion of hard knowledge, and seem precocious for their age. She has a grudge against Brodie, who has tenure and was hired six years before Mackay became headmistress. Brodie boasts to her girls that the only way she will stop teaching is if she is assassinated.
Brodie catches the eye of the school’s music teacher and choirmaster Gordon Lowther, with whom she and the girls spend weekends at his luxurious home in Cramond. Brodie sometimes spends the night with Lowther, although she tries to conceal this from the girls. Lowther wishes to marry Brodie, but she still has feelings for the school’s art teacher Teddy Lloyd, an ex-lover of Brodie’s who steadily pursues her.
As the Brodie Set grow older and progress to the Senior School, they frequent Teddy Lloyd’s studio, where he paints Jenny’s portrait. Sandy initially rebuffs a lecherous advance from Lloyd. However, when Brodie tries to manoeuvre Jenny and Lloyd into an affair, and Sandy into spying on them, it is Sandy, resentful of Brodie’s constant praise of Jenny’s beauty, who becomes Teddy’s lover and muse. Sandy ends the affair because of Lloyd’s continuing obsession with Brodie.
Mary, influenced by Brodie, leaves the school to join her brother, whom she believes to be fighting for Franco. She is killed shortly after crossing the frontier, which incites Sandy to inform the headmistress of Brodie’s efforts to impose her politics on her students. The disclosure finally leads to Brodie’s termination, her humiliation compounded by Mr. Lowther’s engagement to another teacher.