Writer Jimmy Dougan
*Blue Jean is being screened at Mockingbird Cinema until 16 February, and at MAC from 24 February to 2 March*
I can’t help but feel like queer people are being put through the cinematic wringer of late.
The game-changing, galvanising radicalism of late-70s trailblazers like Pedro Almodóvar, Chantal Akerman, and Derek Jarman has given way to a joylessly dreary, grey modernism with a core of heartbreak and sadness. A list of landmark LGBTQ+ films posted by the British Film Institute to their Letterboxd profile presents a veritable cornucopia of suffering.
Surely, I wonder, there must be more to queer romance than Timothée Chalamet sobbing into the camera while the credits roll?
Georgia Oakley’s feature film debut, Blue Jean, released by Altitude Films, is very much of this modern sensibility. This is a bleak film, with joy only occasionally breaking through the clouds. Yet it’s rooted in the very real, very sad history of the British LGBTQ+ community and provides an illuminating window into the past.
It’s 1988 in Newcastle. Jean (Rosy McEwan) teaches PE at a comprehensive school. She’s also gay and meets her partner Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and friends at the local gay club most evenings. If her employers find out she’s gay, she’ll almost certainly lose her job – regressive Section 28 legislation imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s government forbids schools from diverting from heteronormativity.
Jean views her sexuality as something to be concealed and hidden. She’s done fine until now, but the arrival of a new pupil Lois (Lucy Halliday) begins to cause problems when the 15-year-old starts showing up at the gay club and taking an interest in Jean’s personal life.
Blue Jean drew me in with a tantalising opening, showing Jean methodically and artfully dying her hair. She’s putting on a mask and becoming someone else, on the run from something in her past. It’s an arresting image, suggestive of Jean’s immaculately controlled image and personal life.
The film is shot by cinematographer Victor Seguin in neat 16mm which deftly evokes film of the era, looking not unlike something the BBC’s former Brum-based Pebble Mill Studios would have broadcast. But the aesthetic is heightened by deliberately muted pastels clashing with seedy nightclub neons to suggest something sexier and more contemporary.
Seguin keeps the camera close on Jean so that every glance and twitch is captured. This feeling of entrapment is enforced by the narrow aspect ratio. She’s a caged animal.
McEwan’s performance is striking and strange. Everything Jean feels and does is suppressed and controlled, so everything she does comes across as a bit weird and rehearsed. When Jean’s sister brings up her previous marriage to a man, McEwan plays it as if a nuclear bomb has gone off in the garden. Jean is ruined by fear and her titanic, bold performance works brilliantly.
There’s also a refreshing lack of judgement, or indeed gendered gaze in Oakley’s direction. I was reminded of Céline Sciamma’s revolutionary 2019 film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and often felt that Blue Jean’s most cutting-edge aspect isn’t its politics, but rather how it frames female and queer bodies.
Whether making love, showering after netball, or scoffing a Pot Noodle, there is something refreshingly mundane and unspectacular about the way these people are depicted. They are simply allowed to exist.
However, it’s a shame McEwan and the camerawork isn’t better served by the material. Too much of the film feels didactic or clichéd. An early scene shows Jean inexplicably explaining the fight or flight response to the netball team, as if Oakley doesn’t trust us to automatically assume that a closeted lesbian in Thatcher’s Britain might just be continually on-edge and terrified of being outed.
The many scenes of Jean and her friends in the gay bar arguing about the nuances of queer identity begin to grate too. Only when Oakley begins to let loose do these scenes take flight. She films beautiful queers in beautiful clothes dancing in luxurious slow-motion. She sets a lover’s quarrel in a blood-red bathroom with ‘Blue Monday’ for a soundtrack – fantastic.
The final thirty minutes are gripping, with Jean finally having to confront the damage her political and sexual ambivalence have wrought. The tension is unbearable; the dilemma Jean faces is challenging and knotty for her and us. The film is weaker for not hitting these highs sooner.
Blue Jean is a discomforting and uneasy film. It resists simple categorisation – perhaps to a fault – and only occasionally transcends its period trappings to become something truly thrilling.
And while Oakley could do with trusting her audience more, Rosy McEwan’s searing performance alone makes this one worth giving your time to.
Blue Jean – official trailer
Blue Jean is being screened at Mockingbird Cinema, at The Custard Factory, until 16 February. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/blue-jean/
Blue Jean then screens at MAC from 24 February to 2 March: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/event/blue-jean
For more on Altitude Films visit: www.altitude.film