Muriel Sparks’ fictionalized personal history about a memorably eccentric middle-school teacher at a conservative all-girls school in Scotland was tidied-up into a well-made-up play by Jay Presson Allen, then pressed like a flower in Ronald Neame’s careful film adaptation. Even ‘opened up’ for the camera, the first half can’t slough off the play’s predigested tone of over-simplified psychological motivations, but about an hour in, the sheer level of acting rises to such heights it easily blots out all reservations. Particularly so when Maggie Smith’s Brodie flares up in self-defense against Celia Johnson’s antagonistic superintendent. Smith really pulls out the stops, refusing to play down dangerous/unattractive elements in a character all too easily sentimentalized & glamorized into a sort of cuddly Auntie Mame positive life force. It’s a tremendous gift for the rest of the cast who may not win our sympathy or pull out a droll comeback line, but who do get a chance to hold their own against the fascinating character tsunami of Smith’s Brodie.
DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Robert Stevens, married to Maggie Smith at the time, gives a swaggering perf as the school’s randy art teacher. He looked headed for a major film career after this, but his follow up, Billy Wilder’s resounding flop THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70, put a quick kabosh on international stardom. It also gave us a Holmes for the ages.