The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (July 17/04)
Were you to take away Maggie Smith's amazing central performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you'd be left with a stodgy and curiously flat drama devoid of intriguing supporting characters. It's because Smith is as good as she is that the movie is at all watchable; stripped of her presence, there's no doubt that the film would be a complete bore.
Smith stars as the titular Jean Brodie, a free-spirited teacher at an all-girls school that doesn't exactly encourage such progressive thinking. Jean's students thrill to her cavalier attitude and melodramatic way of speaking, though the school's principal (played by Celia Johnson) vehemently disapproves of her techniques. Unbeknownst to her, Jean is carrying on with two of the school's teachers - one of whom is married with several children. The story focuses on three of her pupils in particular - Sandy (Pamela Franklin), Jenny (Diane Grayson), and Mary (Jane Carr) - and the way Jean's unorthodox style impacts their lives.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - following in the footsteps of Goodbye, Mr. Chips - could be considered a precursor to films like Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland's Opus, although Jean Brodie never becomes quite as fascinating as Mr. Keating or Mr. Holland. Part of the problem is that Jean has been surrounded by characters that aren't nearly as interesting as she is - something that's particularly true in the case of Sandy, whose transformation from meek bookmouse to brazen hippie just isn't convincing. Though she initially looks up to and admires Jean, Sandy eventually turns on her teacher and finally berates her with a long speech that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.
Jay Presson Allen's script (adapted from her stage play, which was based on Muriel Spark's novel) doesn't do the film any favors, offering up a story that's heavy on dialogue and light on plot. By the time the end rolls around and Jean has received her unjust comeuppance, it's hard not to wonder what the point of all this was. Still, Smith's performance (for which she deservedly won an Oscar) is always compelling - it's just a shame the same can't be said for the film.