Hannah Strong


Blue Jean – first-look review

Georgia Oakley delivers an assured debut with her poignant portrait of a lesbian teacher living in Thatcher's Britain.

The draconian Britain known under Thatcher once felt like a thing of the past, but as we slide into another recession and face having a new girlboss Tory as Prime Minister, it’s understandable that filmmakers should want to bring attention to the wounds of the past, and how these might be relevant to our current political and social turmoil. Georgia Oakley’s understated feature debut turns back the clock to 1980s Tyneside, where dedicated PE teacher Jean (a captivating Rosy McEwen) is forced to reckon with her identity when a new student arrives in her class.

A closeted lesbian, Jean is fairly unassuming at the school where she works, popular with students and liked well enough by her colleagues – but she really comes alive in her free time, which is largely spent at the local lesbian bar, playing pool and larking about, often with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes), though Jean occasionally feels uncomfortable among their out-and-proud social circle. While Viv is mostly understanding, she feels particularly hurt when Jean refers to her as just a ‘friend’ when speaking to her young nephew. Her relationship woes aren’t Jean’s only problem – Lois (the new student at school, played by Lucy Halliday) is being bullied by star pupil Siobhan (Lydia Page), and for Jean, stepping in means risking her own personal life being exposed.

‘Blue’ is the optimal word then – poor Jean is having a rough time of it, and only seems able to find solace in the comfort of a warm bath and an episode of Blind Date. But loneliness has a way at creeping in, and Jean struggles to reconcile her desire for love and freedom with a fear of losing her family and the job she adores. Meanwhile, the television set grimly narrates that Prime Minister Thatcher is looking to introduce ‘Section 28’, prohibiting “the promotion of homosexuality” within schools. As history tells us, this was a particularly miserable time in British history, with many queer people forced to conceal their sexuality else face public harassment, violence, and possible jail time.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Oakley cannily avoids leaning into melodrama. Jean’s predicament is easy to understand, but she’s hardly without her flaws – her alliances tend to lie with those who don’t deserve them, and Jean would rather save her own skin than do the right thing. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but McEwan gives a spellbinding performance, conveying Jean’s flightiness and unease where the relatively sparse script leaves room for her. It’s a happy marriage of director and actor, while Victor Seguin’s intimate cinematography bathes the film in gorgeous swathes of teal and indigo.

This isn’t a bold, blustering piece of British cinema; it’s more thoughtful and taciturn than that, but should serve as a painful, poignant reminder of what we lose when we are forced to act in our own self-interests and the inhumanity of asking people to repress elements of their identity. Considering the stranglehold transphobia has on British culture currently, Blue Jean feels all the more impactful as a cautionary tale of how this intolerance only breeds hatred and hurt.

Published 2 Sep 2022

Tags: Georgia Oakley Queer Cinema Venice Film Festival

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