'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' is a film that is rich in ideas. It tackles themes such as favouritism, stereotyping, sexuality, ontology and questioning. But more important than these issues that it explores well, the film is highly multi-layered and it manages to look at how things appear on the surface against what they really are. The film is a brilliant piece of work, however it is almost impossible to praise it without spoilers. So much of the film's power depends on the contrast between the start and finish of the film. This is emphasised by the use of the same type of scene at the beginning and end - with all of the emotional events wedged in between. Please do not read on any further unless you have already seen the film. I would hate to spoil the extraordinary experience of watching this film without knowing what is going to happen.
It is an amazing achievement for a film to make you love the protagonist at the beginning, then hate her at the end, and this film does that. It is not because Smith's character changes that we start to dislike her, but rather because our perception changes in the film. On the surface Miss Brodie appears to be an affectionate, caring woman who is fun to be around. But we eventually sink beneath the surface, and realise how manipulative she is, and how she is stereotyping and confining her girls when she praises them on their individual virtues. She doesn't care for the girls as children of her own, but more so her own tools. As Sandy points out in the final confrontation, Miss Brodie sees an individual function and narrow objective with each of her pupils.
The film explores ideas about love too, but it is actually more so manipulation in the end. The way that Miss Brodie draws men into her, like she is using them when she sees fit. She says that she is in her prime because she is at a stage in her life when she can control all elements - including the headmistress. She likes being around young minds because they are so easy to influence, and with the male teachers at the school, she uses her 'feminine charms' to entice them. She does not however have any means by which to control the female adults, and therefore she is not on friendly terms with any of them.
The acting in the film is excellent by all concerned. Maggie Smith is cunningly brilliant as the heroine/villain combination of friendly wit and below surface ideas that are almost sickening (like trying to create a younger version of herself in Jenny to satisfying her lovers). But, it is really Pamela Franklin's film. Her character matures in the film, defies stereotyping and sees beneath the surface. There are not words to describe how perfectly she plays Sandy, and considering that she was 19-years-old at the time, she plays a 12-year-old girl with amazing realism. She justly won the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress, and it is certainly one of the performances that I have seen of the decade, if not of all time.
The technical side of the film is not strikingly amazing, however some shots in the film are very carefully composed, and it seems more as if the director has decided to emphasise the script and performances, rather than try to create a visual feast. And there are deeper reasons for this too, because the film is about things on the surface not being as they seem. On the surface, the film has the look of any typical 1960s drama, but, if you look beneath, you should find a stunning, thought-provoking film that will stay in your mind long after the final credits.