The ravages of Thatcherism in England’s North East could seem like a milieu for an all too familiar kitchen-sink drama, especially when you factor in that it’s the setting for a debut film. What a thrill (and relief), then, that Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean, while certainly approaching its social issues with force and clear-eyed morality, doesn’t do that all-too-common thing of conflating drabness with authenticity, instead drawing a much more stylish and affecting portrait of a life lived uncomfortably between society’s centre and its margins.
Of the many evils of Thatcher’s reign, Blue Jean hones in on the infamous and ghastly Section 28 that essentially banned being both gay and employed in the public sector. For Jean (Rosy McEwen) a lesbian PE teacher in a Tyneside secondary school, this puts her in a paranoid limbo state – she must hide her identity from her colleagues and students, but her fellow lesbians can’t really relate to her, living in their own world, as far as humanly possible from anywhere the Tories bother looking at. It’s a loneliness that McEwen plays exceptionally well – bar the odd accent slip – whilst the tension is only ramped up when new lesbian student Lois (Lucy Halliday) joins Jean’s class.
Even before they catch one another at the local lesbian club, Jean and Lois instantly recognise one another, their essential otherness evident to both themselves and to Lois’s classmates, though it takes longer for them to get their heads round exactly *why* Lois feels different. Popular with her students, Jean suddenly has to set harsher boundaries, which her previous favourite, the fiery Siobhan (Lydia Page), clocks and feels insulted by, immediately exacerbating her resentment and bullying of Lois.
Oakley brings the sheer hostility of enforced heteronormativity to distressingly vibrant life here, Jean forced to fight against all her instincts, tamping down on her own feelings and refusing to help Lois find her way as a young queer woman. This latter moment is devastating, a desperate survival technique that haunts Jean for the rest of the film. Oakley isn’t shy about letting her audience have complicated feelings towards Jean (she makes one third-act choice that borders on the unforgivable) and in embracing this smaller moral uncertainty, her wider and more direct points are much more powerful.
A lot of the movies that trade in ‘marginalised peoples vs repressive governments’ stories idealise their heroes, which can be dramatically satisfying but makes the answers too easy – i.e. behave in the right ways and you’ll eventually get what you want/need. Blue Jean rejects this, fighting for rights for everyone, even if a person in that group has made unsavoury decisions. That said, there’s joy here too, lively queer parties providing a place of safety and fun, all set to a soundtrack of ‘80s banger after ‘80s banger.
Blue Jean often feels like it could have been pulled directly from the era in which it is set. From production design to costuming to the warm and crackly glow of the camerawork, it looks fantastic and, in an era where, again, Tory malpractice is devastating the arts, leaving talent to emerge from only small pools of posh southerners, the omnipresent Tyneside accents feel like the best step backwards possible. What a wonderful showcase for rising stars both in front of and behind the camera.