With its abundance of flickery grain, exceedingly credible period production, and eminently authentic ensemble, UK filmmaker Georgia Oakley’s astonishing debut feature “Blue Jean” — which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week, no doubt primed to pick up a swath of gongs and laurels — could well be a relic exhumed from the back cupboards of a dusty film archive.
Set amid Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror in the late ‘80s, the little-known Rosy McEwen puts in a calling card performance for the ages as Jean, a closeted lesbian gym teacher torn asunder by the emergence of Section 28: barbaric British legislation that, until 2003, prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” across the country. With this and Charlotte Wells’ similarly ravishing “Aftersun” premiering within six months of one another, well, you’ve got to be thinking: just what the bloody hell are they putting in the water in British film schools, and how can we get a sip?
Though the hostile political environment forms the overbearing shadow of “Blue Jean” — an ever-tightening noose around the eponymous lead’s neck — it’s less interested in Westminster than it is Cilla Black, quid pints, and indoor smoking. The granular quality imbued in the setting of “Blue Jean” is among the feature’s most generous assets: one would presume that it was made with a budget of peanuts, pocket lint, and string, but god, this is as transportive as it gets, each and every scene emanating ‘80s realism. Yet the wounds of Section 28 are yet to be scrubbed. That “Blue Jean” still feels such a timely statement, with trans people hounded daily by elements of the media class and anti-queer hate crime statistics suggestive of frightening regression, is damning in itself.
It’s 1988 in Tyneside, the slice of North East England defined by Alan Shearer, Geordie accents, and brown ale. In the cold, clinical glow of her bathroom light, Jean coats her hair with a fresh lick of dye, bleaching her cropped mop peroxide blonde. With her sharp, angular facial features, twinkish figure, and that aforementioned barnet, she looks like a cross between David Bowie and Jarman-era Tilda Swinton, quite fashionably androgynous with pop-punk style. She’s hardly a breaker of conventions, otherwise, her nights variously spent in front of the telly watching straight people do the worst on ‘Blind Date’ or sipping pints at the local queer pub with her girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes, a terrific butch).
By day, she’s a popular secondary school gym teacher, taking the reins on the netball team and encouraging the girls to get into footie (soccer, for the Americans in the room). Though not immune to the tittering speculation of her students, nor the eyebrow-raising scowls of her peers in the staff room, her queerness mostly coasts under the radar. Until Section 28 places gays and lesbians across the land under McCarthyist scrutiny, that is: parents who once couldn’t give a toss about Jean’s private goings-on now side-eye her in the street, and her conspicuous lack of a lad — though she is a divorcée, separating from her husband some years prior — stokes gossip in the school halls.
Even amid the probing, she proves talented at segmentalizing her life. That’s until one hell of a spanner is thrown in the works by the arrival of a new fifteen-year-old student, Lois (Lucy Halliday, devilish), who Jean takes a shine to as an outcast, until she spots her at a queer dive bar. To bump into a student in the local shops is awkward enough — but in one of Tyneside’s few gay pubs, her meticulously hidden secret life threatening to be revealed? It’s quite a conundrum. Unlike the lion’s share of her friends, Jean is hardly a radical: instead of embracing another young lesbian, already in the throes of bullying for her difference, Jean pushes her away, too afraid of being outed.
It’s to the huge credit of Oakley, also the sole writer on “Blue Jean” — the talent! — that the moral complexities here are so readily embraced. The story, as it plays out, is achingly tragic: it’s at once a relic of a terrible historical moment that still echoes into the present and the very human tale of lives broken by prejudice. Among the bold choices here is to have Jean herself make a series of deeply unlikeable, unconscionable decisions in aid of her own safety and security. Though deeply flawed, it’s to the testament of the page and McEwen’s profoundly believable performance that Jean is sympathetic to the end, the portrait of a woman caught in a web of societal hatred. Like Frankie Corio in Wells’ aforementioned debut, it’s among the year’s brilliant breakouts, bolstering one of 2022’s most welcome surprises. [A-]