At the very beginning of Blue Jean, we are introduced to our protagonist, Jean (Rosy McEwen). She’s bleaching her hair and sitting on the sofa in her dressing gown, watching Blind Date. It’s a rare moment when she can exist and enjoy herself.
See, Jean is a school PE teacher in 1980s Britain. Margaret Thatcher’s voice is booming from the TV and the radio, promoting a new law that would criminalise homosexuality. And gay is exactly what Jean is. She lives a double life; one as a divorced teacher and another as a lesbian in a happy relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), who’s more open about her sexuality.
Jean’s life starts coming apart at the seams with the arrival of a new student, Lois (Lucy Halliday). Lois is sporty like Jean, and one night, Jean finds Lois at the gay bar she frequents. When Lois gets bullied by a popular student, Siobhan, Jean reaches a breaking point.
There is a lot of misery to be found in Blue Jean. It’s a film that reduces being gay to a struggle. Yet director Georgia Oakley, making her directorial feature debut here, handles it with grace and never resorts to melodrama to deliver her story.
Rosy McEwen is compelling as Jean. Her performance is nuanced and delicate, and while it’s also restrained, McEwen never holds anything back. Her huge eyes communicate Jean’s internal conflict well. Equally great is Lucy Halliday, as Lois and the two have great chemistry together.
Blue Jean feels a little unfinished, its script is one more polish away from a truly spectacular film. While Oakley aptly focuses on how society and even Jean’s fellow teachers so quickly and easily demonise gay people, the film lacks a sense of the bigger picture. While we all know the stakes all too well, Oakley doesn’t show them enough to give her film a sense of urgency.
The production design is one of the film’s biggest strengths. The grey, dull, damp Tyneside is brought to life with care and details. It feels like an appropriately lived-in world rather than a series of sets that the actors temporarily inhabit. There is texture to the grainy cinematography by Victor Seguin, which gives it a specific flavour and sense of the times.
But Blue Jean still feels like a very one-sided exploration of being a lesbian. Most of these women have short hair and hairy armpits and are overwhelmingly masc-representing and almost all white. A more varied palette of women is desperately needed here, it would allow Blue Jean to be more authentic and accessible.
It’s still a very impressive feature debut from Oakley. She handles the subject matter with empathy, but Blue Jean is still needlessly serious and lacks focus in the narrative. It could have been more dramatic, but the great performances saved the day.
Blue Jean screened at the BFI London Film Festival on October 6 and is now cinemas.