Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Georgia Oakley
Writer: Georgia Oakley
Starring: Rosy McEwan, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday
By Calum Cooper
Georgia Oakley’s “Blue Jean” (2022) is a rare gem that’s as deep in its humane convictions as it is contemporary in its urgency. It’s a brilliant character study that recognises and challenges societal hardship against some of the most marginalised people. Loneliness is already something of an epidemic, but in a world where your very identity is continuously classified as against the norm, then that emotion can take on unfathomable depths. In combating this, Oakley transforms a blisteringly empathetic tale into one of the year’s best films.
Jean (Rosy McEwan) is a PE teacher in Newcastle, 1988. She is gay, yet she remains mostly in the closet, outside of the bars she frequents at night, away from her prying colleagues. This is largely due to the introduction of the Thatcher government’s Clause 28 – a law that prohibited the promotion of homosexuality, especially in the education sector. Jean fears if her colleagues discovered her sexual preferences, she will be ostracised or, worse, met with violence, as so many in the LGBTQ+ community were.
These fears come to the forefront when, on a night out with friends, Jean spots one of her students, Lois (Lucy Halliday), attending the same clubs as her. This puts Jean between a rock and a hard place. She must protect herself, and the identity she has only just started to become comfortable with, but this may come at a cost for her student.
“Oakley treats everyone affected with compassion, portraying them as stronger than the forces that seek to shame and ostracise them, even if they don’t realise it yet. That this is her feature debut is simply astonishing.”
From the very first frames, Oakley makes her film a commentary on the underlying evils of what is designated as societal norms. Jean remains quiet or passive as her colleagues vocally support the exclusion of LGBTQ+ content in education, while reinforcing so-called gender norms from relationships to even what sports should be played by who. Billboards across Newcastle celebrate the introduction of Clause 28. Jean’s sister is only supportive of Jean’s lifestyle as long as her young son isn’t “exposed” to it. Even the entertainment shows that play on TV emphasise what “normal” is. “Blue Jean” takes the show “Blind Date” (1985-2003) and places it square in the middle of its arguments. If even something as seemingly harmless as a late night show can enforce the idea that heterosexual relationships are the “right” way to live then where can LGBTQ+ communities turn to for a safe space? How is television and governmental insistence on heterosexuality any less political than LGBTQ+ communities trying to express pride in themselves?
Jean is surrounded by these domineering, but indirect, commands to conform. Even the film’s aesthetic of a muted colour palette evokes a discomforting coldness that gets under your skin; as if nowhere is truly safe in such a discriminatory environment that excludes all but the heterosexual community. Jean has made an uneasy peace with this, however lonely it makes her feel. Yet when Lois, a young girl at the beginning of the journey that Jean herself went on early in life, enters the picture, Jean is forced to consider the choices she makes in the landscape of such homophobia. The grim irony of Clause 28 and its supporters’ “think of the children” argument – an argument that has since been re-weaponised by contemporary transphobia – when its enforcement only suppresses youthful growth is not lost on the film.
The acting across the board is marvellous. Lucy Halliday makes quite the impression with her sublime juxtaposition between her character’s external gawkishness and internal righteousness. Kerrie Hayes as Jean’s loud and proud girlfriend Viv serves as an ideal foil to Jean’s stubborn commitment to self-protection. One of the most riveting scenes is an argument between the couple in which Viv confronts Jean on the example she is setting for budding lesbians like Lois. It is a thought provoking piece of expert screenwriting, made all the more heart wrenching by Rosy McEwan’s performance – which is nothing short of masterful. This is a role which requires the character to wear an emotional mask for much of the film. McEwan conveys this wonderfully, while continually hinting at the pain and anxiety that informs Jean for not just the film, but has shaped her for much, if not all, of her life.
Oakley’s direction is some of the most intimately empathetic of the year. This is a film about inner turmoil against the backdrop of outward hostility. Such circumstances are a breeding ground for isolation and anguish. It can also lead people to make awful decisions. Yet Oakley treats everyone affected with compassion, portraying them as stronger than the forces that seek to shame and ostracise them, even if they don’t realise it yet. That this is her feature debut is simply astonishing.
“Blue Jean” is a triumph! A movie so delicately crafted and powerfully understated that it simply demands to be seen.”
Even as it celebrates its heroine, and those in the LGBTQ+ community, “Blue Jean” is a quietly scathing picture. It condemns the systemic nature of prejudice, and those who unknowingly, or worse wilfully, enable it. Its setting of the 1980s reflects on the traumatic past of oppression, yet it painfully speaks to modern times too. In politically divided times, hatred against LGBTQ+ communities is sadly on the rise once more. As mentioned, the outdated arguments about protecting other groups, be it of the youth or others, have been recycled and repackaged by those who wish to deny such communities the right to even exist. This is what makes films like “Blue Jean” so essential. They are commentaries on the present as much as the past. They can serve as a lesson on what we must not allow to happen again and as a reminder to those affected that love defeats hate every time. It always has and, as long as we demonstrate it proudly, it always will.
“Blue Jean” is a triumph! A movie so delicately crafted and powerfully understated that it simply demands to be seen. It is currently leading the nominations in the British Independent Film Awards – alongside the equally soulful “Aftersun” (2022), also a directorial debut – and it is more than worthy of this honour. Roger Ebert once said that cinema is a machine for generating empathy. It is movies like “Blue Jean” that prove just how true that sentiment is.
“Blue Jean” is in cinemas February 10th 2023 (UK)