It is 1988 and Section 28 – the notorious legislative clause that banned teachers from discussing homosexual relationships with students – has just come into effect. Lesbian Tyneside PE teacher Jean (Rosy McEwen) lives in fear of being discovered by her colleagues in Georgia Oakley’s astonishing feature debut, a film about the terror that so many lived – and continue to live – in hiding from the bigotry of the state and society.
Blue Jean opens with our eponymous teacher watches that most mundane staples of 1980s Saturday night culture: Cilla Black’s Blind Date. A symbol if ever there was one of heteronormativity, it’s also notable that Black was herself a champion of Thatcher’s government. It’s incredible how much insight this first, stark image gives into Jean’s inner life. That she is alone, that she has chosen (albeit from the admittedly limited selection of 80s telly) this icon of aspirational heteronormativity speaks already to a deeply unresolved yearning inside her. A life that she wants that isn’t hers, or indeed her. As she dyes her hair blonde – a motif that will be repeated later at a key turning point – Jean hides even when there is no one else to hide from. Later, discussing Blind Date, she will tell her girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), that not everything is political. Are you sure about that, Jean?
As she drives to work, signs of the world’s hostility are all around: the radio news reports that Section 28 has recently come into effect. A Tory billboard looms at her from the street shrieking about “moral values”. Jean impassively turns the radio off, stares straight ahead, but they remain there all the same. It is no exaggeration to say that Oakley has crafted a vision of dystopia: for gay and non-conforming people in Thatcherite Britain, reality exists on two planes: the first is the world of aspiration, family values, buy-your-council-house and City-Boy economics, the second – at least for Jean – is one of terror, suspicion, marginalisation and the threat moral and financial ruin.
Victor Seguin’s wonderfully gritty cinematography speaks to a tradition of social realist British dramas that emerged during the 1970s and 80s, many of which focussed on working class lives and stories of hardship, redemption and coming of age narratives. There is something of Kes, Gregory’s Girl, Rita, Sue and Bob Too, as well as 2006’s This is England in the mix here, but Blue Jean is its own story, too. All tragic heroes need a flaw and Jean’s is fear: her relationship with the gorgeous, caring Viv is strained to the limit because she is too scared to come out, and fear will ultimately lead someone to a profound betrayal of trust. Yet Blue Jean is fundamentally a hopeful film: knowing that that revolting clause was ultimately (belatedly) quashed, the film neither diminishes nor overplays minor acts of resistance – that horrid Tory poster can later be seen vandalised.
It’s a truism that period fiction is always really about the present. And so it is true about Blue Jean. As the forces of hate and bigotry now mobilise against another group of nonconforming people – transgender and non-binary people – the same ludicrous arguments, nonsense moralising and pearl clutching are deployed as they were (and often still are) against gay people. The arc of history bends against hate, but not without profound struggle, loss and pain; fear numbs action, convinces us not to move or to protect our allies. It is very easy for straight, cisgender white male writers like this one to say these things: it is harder to act to protect those less able to protect themselves.