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Fox Home Entertainment presents
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

"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."
- Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: August 10, 2004

Stars: Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Pamela Franklin, Gordon Jackson, Celia Johnson
Director: Ronald Neame

Manufacturer: PDMC
MPAA Rating: PG for (brief nudity, sexual themes)
Run Time: 01h:55m:40s
Release Date: July 06, 2004
UPC: 024543119944
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ AB+B B-

DVD Review

More than three decades before she donned a wizard's robe to play Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films, Maggie Smith won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for portraying another inspirational British teacher. And although Jean Brodie remains a far more complex and controversial figure than the firm but gentle McGonagall, Smith brings her patented eccentricity to both women, making them unique and memorable. The major difference between the two is that McGonagall always acts in her students' best interests, while Brodie's motives seem carefully designed to foster her own glorification, so she may forever continue in her "prime."

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie treats its subject like the queen she believes herself to be, and depicts the final years of her glorious and turbulent reign at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ronald Neame's film gingerly blends comedy, drama, and Brodie's quirky personality, but the resulting brew, like a fine hollandaise sauce, often breaks down. And unfortunately, no one involved—not even the marvelous Smith—can provide the necessary quick fixes to bind it back together.

Although well-liked, respected, and, at times, worshipped by the girls she educates, Brodie is most definitely a legend in her own mind. She thumbs her nose at the curriculum mandated by the school's headmistress, Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), preferring to stoke the passions of her "girls" with lectures on art, music, and the mysteries of love. Brodie doesn't really teach, but rather holds court in her classroom, imprinting her influence on a sea of young minds. ("You will always be Brodie girls," she says with finality.) Her controversial ideas and methods—such as singing the praises of fascism—land her in hot water with the school's administration, and her progressive views on sex and relationships torture the men in her life—Teddy (Robert Stephens, Smith's real-life husband at the time), a married artist with six children, and Gordon (Gordon Jackson, best known as Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs), a middle-aged bachelor who also teaches at the school.

One of Brodie's favorite pastimes involves predicting what paths of life her students will follow. "I am a potter and you are my pride," she tells them. Her amazing degree of success can be attributed more to her girls' intense desire to realize her vision than any prescience. But with a particular core group, the game backfires, spelling tragedy for one and inspiring another to rebel, and ultimately expose the manipulative egotist lurking beneath Brodie's benevolent façade.

Meticulously produced and well acted by a sterling British cast, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains, as the Scots might say, a wee bit precious for contemporary tastes. A subtle but annoying pretension permeates the film, making it difficult to embrace. And let's face it, Jean Brodie is hardly the type of character around which an audience wants to wrap its arms. (Julia Roberts in Mona Lisa Smile she is not.) That said, we do admire Brodie's independent spirit and disregard of social mores, and can understand why a group of impressionable adolescent girls—especially in 1932—might make her their heroine. On the other hand, we can also empathize with Miss Mackay's concerns, and, as parents, would think twice (and probably thrice) before allowing Brodie to shape and mold our own kids.

Dame Maggie, of course, carries the movie, but its weight often strains even her talented shoulders. Part of Smith's genius is her ability to convey all the conflicting facets of Brodie's character, then tie them together to create a fiercely human portrait. You may not like Jean Brodie, but it's hard not to love Maggie Smith, and her uncompromising portrayal justly earns all the accolades it received. Neame's languorous direction, on the other hand, keeps the film's engine from properly revving until the climax, despite some frank depiction of teen sexuality. As Miss Mackay, the supremely talented Johnson (who 25 years earlier broke our hearts in Brief Encounter) makes a formidable adversary, and it's a shame her part wasn't enlarged. Pamela Franklin, as the pivotal Sandy, also holds her own with Smith, believably crafting a difficult role.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie calls to mind other British classics dealing with revered teachers—films like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Browning Version—but it never achieves the same emotional depth. Smith tries her best to tug our heart strings, but like many of the characters in the film, the movie ultimately leaves us cold.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen presentation is quite clean and vivid, and even though director Neame purposely used muted colors, the hues possess a lovely vibrancy, especially in exterior scenes. A fair amount of grain preserves the film-like feel but never overwhelms the image, and only the faintest speckling occasionally dots the print. Shadow detail remains very good throughout, and even heavy patterns resist shimmering. Sometimes Smith's hair looks a bit too orange, but skin tones always appear natural, and close-ups enjoy exceptional clarity. This is another in a succession of winning transfers in Fox's Studio Classics series.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishyes
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The stereo track enjoys solid fullness and fair depth. The film's talky nature makes understanding dialogue essential, and the track complies. Conversations are so clear, even the Scottish accents don't get in the way. Rod McKuen's flowery score becomes a bit overbearing at times, but such instances are thankfully rare. Stereo separation is slight at best, and no age-related defects could be detected.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Ronald Neame and actress Pamela Franklin
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
Extras Review: Fox skimps a bit on the extras, including only a theatrical trailer, teaser, still gallery, and audio commentary. Of the four, the commentary, featuring director Neame and actress Franklin, is by far the most worthwhile supplement. Neame, at age 93, is sharp as a tack and offers a lively, often fascinating monologue that outshines similar efforts by far more youthful and dynamic directors. At times brutally frank ("People who run studios today don't know anything about film or how to make films") and never afraid to criticize his own work (he even calls a couple of scenes in the film "boring"), Neame at once engages the listener, and speaks with clarity and insight. He reminisces about his six-decade career—including anecdotes about his friendship with David Lean, and working with such legends as Hitchcock and Judy Garland—and how he always sought to give his actors the spotlight. (Nowadays, he says, the director has become the star, and Neame thinks that's a mistake.) He praises Maggie Smith to the hilt, but also notes she could be "temperamental," forcing him to occasionally call upon her husband to "keep the peace." He also relates an amusing story about auditioning 500 young actresses to portray the 70 schoolgirls needed for the film—and how the best gigglers got the jobs. Though Neame often wanders away from discussing his movie, hearing what's tantamount to an oral history from someone so integrally involved with both British and American filmmaking is almost always rewarding.

Comments from Franklin (recorded separately) are also interesting, and focus almost exclusively on the film. She talks about her nude scene and "reverse striptease," the daunting task of acting with Smith, and recalls a visit to the set by Princess Margaret. The track cuts smoothly between Neame and Franklin, remaining largely scene-specific, and the two perspectives add a great deal of depth to the film.

Twenty-six black-and-white images comprise the Still Gallery, and feature mostly behind-the-scenes shots that show the convivial atmosphere of the set. The trailer and teaser remain in good condition, although the former gives away a bit too much plot.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie may not stand the test of time, but Smith's performance does, outshining a stagy film that only really grabs us toward the end. Fox's lush transfer and the top-notch audio commentary earn high marks, but even fans of traditional chick flicks may lack the patience for this meandering drama.

 


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