“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) is a lifetime favorite, its themes, as universal and compelling today, as almost a half century ago; Maggie Smith brought impeccable royalty to the role of an avant- garde art and music teacher in a private girls’ school; “Miss Brodie” was a free thinker, fearless, flawed but tangibly prescient in her logic; “give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life”; Maggie Smith, as Jean Brodie, incarcerated my respect, and through the years it has grown exponentially with her every characterization.
“Margaret Shepherd” is a caustic, cantankerous, curmudgeonly vagabond, living in a beleaguered van; in 1974 playwright/novelist Allen Bennett grudgingly allows her to park in his driveway in Camden Town, London; the film focuses humorously and poignantly on the relationship between the two real-life characters over the fifteen years she was his “border” and fodder for his essays and play; Smith and Alex Jennings (in a dual role as Bennett and his alter ego, perpetually bickering about Shepherd) are dazzling in their interpretations.
Director Nicholas Hytner imbues Bennett’s sensitive prose with the proper injection of acerbic wit and humor, never losing sight of the duos mutual respect, tenuous boundaries and testy personality quirks. The richness of the film revolves around the neighbors of Camden Town and their continued homage to their cranky interloper; Christmas gifts, warm meals and unremitting kindness, usually greeted with gruffness, rancor or silence.
“The Lady in the Van” and Dame Maggie Smith resonate with Jean Brodie’s truism, “deep in most of us is the potential for greatness, or the potential to inspire greatness”, Shepherd and Smith accomplished both.