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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Long before she was sporting pointy hats and cheering for Gryffindor at Quidditch matches, Harry Potter's Dame Maggie Smith was an entirely different kind of educator. As the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), she turns in a complex, Oscar-winning performance as a colorful, free-thinking, devoted teacher at a conservative girls' school in 1932 Edinburgh. Her Miss Brodie — a single, 40ish woman who travels, takes lovers, and waxes rhapsodic about everything from opera to Mussolini — is at once passionately dedicated to her work and unbelievably self-centered, expecting adoration from everyone around her. She tends to receive it, too: Two of the Marcia Blaine School's male teachers worship the ground she walks on (Robert Stephens, Smith's real-life husband at the time, plays married art master Teddy Lloyd, and Gordon Jackson is mild-mannered music teacher Gordon Lowther), and all of her girls look to her as an example. (The core "Brodie girls" are played by Pamela Franklin, Diane Grayson, Jane Carr, and Shirley Steedman.) For a long time, the only fly in Miss Brodie's ointment is the persistent antagonism of traditional headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson), who disapproves of Miss Brodie's unconventional teaching methods and flamboyant style. But it's only after a new enemy arises in a most unexpected place that Miss Brodie's confidence finally falters and her tendency to cast herself as a misunderstood martyr to culture, beauty, and insight catches up with her. Smith plays all of Miss Brodie's highs and lows beautifully; it's easy to see why everyone is drawn to her, yet at the same time want to shake her for being such a drama queen. Franklin stands out among the girls — her character, Sandy, develops naturally as the film unfolds, very believably making the jump from girlhood to womanhood. The script, written by Jay Presson Allen (based on her own play, which was, in turn, adapted from Muriel Spark's novel) and considered rather racy for its day, is excellent. Whether Miss Brodie is proclaiming to her girls that they're "the crème de la crème" or telling off Miss Mackay, her words are an inextricable part of her character. Passionate, contradictory, exciting, and maddening, Miss Brodie is one of cinema's most intriguing women, and her story is still a compelling one. Fox offers The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on DVD as part of its Studio Classics series. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is taken from a source-print that has held up well; the English stereo sound is good (other options include English, Spanish, and French mono tracks, plus English and Spanish subtitles). Franklin and director Ronald Neame offer fondly reminiscent commentary on the film (each was recorded separately, then edited together); the disc's other extras include a still gallery and trailers. Closed-captioned, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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