Georgia Oakley’s assured and morally complex debut tells the story of a queer teacher living in Thatcher's Britain
It is 1988, and a lesbian with a bleached, Bowie-esque haircut slurps noodles and sprawls in front of her 20-inch telly. Cilla Black is regaling audiences on Blind Date: a het-rifying gameshow of algorithmic matchmaking for the straight and staid. It’s a strange sight – why is this outwardly cool girl spending her free time watching this brain-smoothing schlock?
It’s a moment that seems to sum up our protagonist’s slippery relationship with her own identity, unwilling to take a stand against all the things she’s carefully arranged her life to accommodate for. Indeed, the tenderness of sapphic love clashes against the cold shadow of state-ordained homophobia in Blue Jean, Georgia Oakley’s assured directorial debut that just won the people’s choice award at Venice’s Giornate degli Autori strand.
The film is incisive, if on-the-nose, about how Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 – a law that banned “the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality” – robbed a generation of self-expression, forcing lies and loneliness on professionals who wanted to maintain their jobs as well as their personal lives. This is the quandary that falls upon Jean (Rosy McEwen), a PE teacher from Tyneside, who spends her days coaching netball and her nights in the loving embrace of long-term partner Viv (Kerrie Hayes).
Oakley benevolently shoots queer bars as convivial, loving spaces and lesbian sex as tender and passionate. Still, Jean has internalized the sense of shame pressed upon her by the Conservative government, succumbing to self-loathing and sleepless nights. While Viv is beautiful in her brazen butchness, Jean is still struggling to navigate this world that isn’t designed for her happiness; when she tells her 5-year-old nephew that Viv is just a friend, her flimsy excuse to placate her hurt partner is: “He’s just a kid.”
Things take a turn for the worse for Jean when a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), turns up at the same queer bar one night, mixing together the two worlds Jean is so desperate to keep siloed. Instead of helping this lonely, kindred spirit survive school bullies, she turns on Lois, desperate to maintain her professional façade – turning as icy as her bleached blonde crop.
In this way, Oakley has crafted a sad and shrewd film about the loneliness of hiding your true self and the inherent evils of compulsory heterosexuality, especially under the guise of “protecting children.” What’s scarier is that although this is a period piece, the exact same thing is happening today with the media-driven moral panic over trans people in Britain, where bigoted zealots are justifying their abhorrent views under the guise of child protection.
Victor Seguin’s cinematography is cool-toned and up close and personal, contrasting the gloomy blue glow of Jean’s personal anguish with the vibrant, neon-hued warmth of queer community, where love and laughter is soundtracked to floor-filling 80s bangers. It makes Jean’s rejection of Lois all the more bleak, refusing solidarity and sisterhood with the young girl when these LGBTQ+ spaces are based upon such implicit community support. McEwen is bleak and beautiful in her role, grimly set in her own self-hatred as she is tormented anew each time that she strolls through the school gates.
Perhaps what Blue Jean needed was a little more show, not tell. Endless radio broadcasts and newsreels, showing gammon-faced Tories pontificating about how kids shouldn’t feel an “inalienable right to be gay,” could have been more cleverly elucidated as the era’s cultural backdrop. Jean and Viv’s conversations, too, take on a repetitive note as they debate back and forth in improbable tones that spell out the film’s central thesis with little subtlety. Here and there, plot points are predictable to the point of being frustrating.
But as a debut for Oakley as a writer-director, Blue Jean is a real feat: an eminently watchable, easy-to-empathise-with drama that plunges us deep into the moral conundrum at play, leaving us to swim against the tide alongside Jean. With crisp style and a hawk-eye to period details, we’re immersed into Thatcher’s Britain – its lingering cruelty casting a frost onto the screen, yet to entirely thaw.
Blue Jean was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 23 February 2023.Where to watch