I hated Dead Poets Society. Even though I was a sensitive poetry-loving 17-year-old when it was first released, it felt not only like a condescending indulgence of the careless prejudices of youth, but morally dishonest in some way I wasn't quite clear on at the time. A lot of movies about teenagers share its primary assumption: that children are blooming flowers of creativity and feeling, and many adults are frustrated or dead-inside monsters, whose authoritarian rules are intended to squelch the passions of the young while feeding a fascist hunger for control. This is a naturally appealing dramatic premise, especially to kids, who are, often, a storm of disorganized emotions searching for something to destroy with righteous indignation. Almost 30 years after being alone among my friends in not adoring that insipidly sentimental Robin Williams teen fantasy, I've finally seen a movie that brilliantly clarifies all of my objections to Dead Poets Society: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Maggie Smith stars a Jean Brodie, a proudly iconoclastic teacher at a conservative girls' finishing school in 1930s Scotland. Enamored with form and expression, Brodie feels that it is her solemn duty to prepare her budding students to fulfill the ecstasy of their youth, and her students love her for it. Unlike the stuffy school administrators who disapprove of Brodie's sensuous methods, her passion for art and her romantic view of life connect directly to their constantly tingling minds and bodies. She considers herself the most important influence that her students will ever have on their lives, a grandiose self-image that suggests a corruption in her priorities and a misunderstanding of her effect.
Ronald Neame's film — which was based on Jay Presson Allen's award-winning stage adaptation of Muriel Spark's novel — is, most directly, a showcase for the great Maggie Smith, who delivers a fantastic performance in the title role and deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar as a result. Smith is a miracle of posture, wit, and extravagant composure as a cover for deep fragility, with a centerpiece scene in which all of these facets are called upon in quick conflicting succession. It's a tour-de-force allowing for equal parts scenery chewing, quiet reflection, and cognitive dissonance, and she handles it with masterful grace. Secondarily, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a marvel of structural manipulation, starting within a safe set of dramatic assumptions — great teacher with wide-eyed students is persecuted for her passion by joyless scolds — and then slowly stripping away the layers from those assumptions until the viewer is able to see them anew from the gory inside-out. It's riveting drama that makes the audience's shifting perspective on the content one of many points of carefully wrought tension. Throughout, it's a skillful execution of no easy subject.
On a deeper level, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a daring assault on emotionally held tropes that are more powerful today than they've ever been. One of the reasons that Dead Poets Society is so beloved is because it's full of notions that we'd like believe are true and good: children are innocent, teachers are inspirational, feeling is truth. Following one's heart has become paramount above all other values and responsibilities; Dead Poets Society even goes so far as to glamorize teen suicide as a form of rebellion against soulless conformity. the character of Jean Brodie, however, who is intoxicated by a set of similar illusions, is a clear-eyed and riveting deconstruction of those fallacies. One of the curious quirks of Brodie's worldview which emerges early in the film is how her devotion to art and beauty is accompanied by her infatuation with Italian leader Benito Mussolini, in whom Brodie senses a kindred spirit, another admirably powerful stirrer of youthful longing for purpose and connectedness. At first, this may seem like an amusing historical joke; after all, prior to World War II, Mussolini was praised by the likes of H.G. Wells and President Franklin Roosevelt; but, as becomes clear later in the film, the parallels between Brodie's sense of herself — and her role as a teacher — and its connection to the methods of the fascist revolution concurrently spreading through Europe is nothing casual. By romanticizing both the history she teaches and her own disappointing past as a kind of mythological idyll worth pursuing, Brodie is more concerned with stimulating the sensual reactions of her students than in fostering intellect and, ultimately, wisdom; she wants to form students in her own image, and cathartically relive — and improve — her own lost youth through their actions. While this seems selfishly misguided, at worst, and has the pleasing effect of tweaking the seemingly awful headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), it turns out that Brodie's myopic fixation on herself as a revolutionary leader of self-actualization is disastrous.
If there's one thing that students entering puberty do not need more of, it's emotional indulgence in ignorantly revolutionary ideas; they provide enough of that on their own. Brodie offers no instruction or example in the virtues that malleable adolescents need to develop for channelling their exuberance in effective and positive ways: moderation, patience, carefulness and consideration. In fact, both Brodie and the lecherous art teacher (Sir Robert Stephens) obsessed with her, callously manipulate and exploit their students for their own pleasure, using the guise of art as cover for their helpless lack of control. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, released in revolutionary 1969 no less, is wonderfully reactionary in that sense that it questions the purity of the default desires of the young, and how these fixations corrupt the adults who cannot let them go; it also manages to recast the sour, pinched-faced and unchanging Mackay as a beacon of persistent good sense by the end. Brodie insists at the beginning that she wishes to avoid petrification; the opposite of that fate, of course, is disintegration. There's underlying yearning for destruction to Jean Brodie's ethic, just as the Fascists nearly destroyed Europe in their effort to forge a radical future, free of the old corrupt traditions and perfected in a harmony of form and aesthetics. It didn't work out well in either case.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter David Conrad, who can be found on Flickchart under the username DavidConrad. He ranks it on his chart at #268 / 1675 (84%), putting it at #5 out of 13 Psychological Dramas o the 1960s. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ranked on my Flickchart at #603 (84%), where it's #8 on my chart of the Best Psychological Dramas of the 1960s, out of 23.