As Pride Month unfolds, it’s always expected to see some queer stories find their way into the release schedule. Blue Jean is a prime example, arriving in American theaters this past weekend after a smashing critical reception in its home country. Georgia Oakley’s feature debut dazzled many on its way to four British Independent Film Awards and a BAFTA nomination. The film looks back to Thatcher’s England and the threat of Section 28, whose ban on “promoting homosexuality” feels awfully close to recent conservative legislation on both sides of the pond. Not that Blue Jean is especially keen on overt political messaging, making its points within the model of a character study.
The character in question is the titular Jean, a secondary school PE teacher in 1988 Newcastle, who hides her sexuality in the workplace and most areas of her personal life. Only at night, in the secretive Eden of a gay bar, does she get to be herself…
Rosy McEwen carries the tensions of Jean’s life with shuddering clarity, putting forward a breakthrough performance that has earned her much adoration from critics, audiences, and awards voters alike. Introduced as she retouches her bleached hair, the pedagogue is popular among the student body, but one feels there’s always a wall separating her from others at school. Even at her sister’s, enjoying a Sunday lunch with the family that still talks to her, Jean’s self-imposed façade makes her a difficult figure to consider. In this regard, McEwen must play that old conundrum of closet dramas, performing deliberate evasion without evading the audience’s eye.
The actress and her director achieve this tricky feat through an obsessive visual language of close-ups, often predicated on the half-pursing of a lip or the way Jean’s face drains of all expression in an instant of panic. The audience’s understanding is also facilitated by social contrasts, by the sneaky glimpse into that paradise of nightlife, when Jean can leave her mask behind and enjoy a sense of freedom bound to break at dawn. Seeing her code-switching is a lesson in survival skills as much as an acknowledgment of the shackles she willingly wraps around herself. Jean’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Viv, is the only one who can seemingly see the bigger picture, crystal clear in all its ugly compromises.
She doesn’t entirely swallow the teacher’s rationalizations, though, but doesn’t reject them wholeheartedly either. At least, not at first. The arrival of a new student at Jean’s school shall throw the woman’s life in disarray, illuminating just how much she’s willing to do to preserve the relative peace of a closeted life. The girl is named Lois, and, like the PE pedagogue, she finds reprieve from the stifling hetero rule by going to the local gay haunts. Their reactions to each other are initially silent, but the teen soon finds her way into Jean’s circle of friends. It’s an unwelcome intrusion, likely born out of hope of having found someone who understands.
In her way, Jean gets Lois’ predicament, but she’s not about to risk her neck to protect her. One must commend a queer film so willing to examine how the closet can turn oppressed people into hall monitors for the straight powers that be, perpetuating injustice while calling the betrayal self-preservation. Jean’s selfishness is confronted head-on, but so are the underlying causes of her attitude, the terror of the vulnerable whose safety depends on passing as ‘normal,’ whatever that means. In performance and character, Oakley’s film captures all this with great rigor, earning applause for McEwen but also for Kerrie Hayes and Lucy Halliday as Viv and Lois.
It’s in the evocation of a bygone era that the filmmakers run into some troubles. To put it bluntly, the historical milieu feels unspecific, more like an impression of the 1980s than a serious portrait of its reality. Props, costumes, hairstyles are so trapped in the idea of 1988 that they forget to account for the vestiges of older lifetimes. The lesbian characters and grainy cinematography may make one think of Carol, but there’s none of the former film’s visual mastery. Consider the care Hayes’ team took in showing how different social strata relate to current trends, with the ghost of the past decade’s postwar styles still present everywhere you look.
If Oakley’s preferred register wasn’t so naturalistic, these anachronisms might have felt purposeful or, at a minimum, excusable. As it stands, they’re just vexing. Moreover, Blue Jean lacks a sense of scope in its depiction of social mores, often failing to dramatize the insidiousness of widespread homophobia in lieu of more overt and less pervasive representations of bigotry. Only the situation with Jean’s nephew ever grasps at the casual venom of traditional gender rules. The audience may fill in the blanks, especially queer viewers all too familiar with Jean’s conflicts, but the text still comes out feeling rather lacking. If one were to question depictions of class, the limitations become even more apparent.
But, at the end of the day, does that break Blue Jean? Certainly not. There’s much value in what Oakley and her cast have achieved, right down to an open ending whose lack of lecturing tidiness feels piercingly honest. It’s enough to leave one wanting more.