Blue Jean *****
Starring: Rose McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday, Lydia Page
Director: Georgia Oakley
In 1988, Britain’s Thatcherite government enacted legislation known as Section 28. This clause prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools, meaning that teachers were forbidden from discussing diverse sexuality with their pupils, let alone revealing their own sexuality to them. It’s against this backdrop that Blue Jean is set, a drama exploring the building pressure of a lesbian teacher within the 80s British education system.
Jean (McEwen) is a young PE teacher at a school in Tyneside. Having divorced a few years previously, she ferociously maintains her privacy at work, where none of her colleagues know that she is now in a relationship with Viv (Hayes). One weekend she bumps into one of her students (Halliday) in a gay bar, going immediately into preservation mode, assuming that her secret is soon to be revealed. And though she could easily protect the girl from the homophobia she suffers at school, Jean must decide whose interests to put first.
A tense and atmospheric period piece, the film revolves around a remarkable performance from its star. McEwen is equal parts powerful poise and crumbling nerves, with Jean’s steep decline into enveloping anxiety played out alongside an unsettling score. It looks beautiful too, with suitably grim locations captured with starkly stunning cinematography. The art director and set dressers have had a field day, with each frame rich with period detail and gorgeously 80s paraphernalia.
The central relationship perfectly captures the quandary of the politics too. While Viv is out and proud, living in a commune and making it clear to the world who she is, Jean is trying hard to blend in, knowing that if she is to continue working in the job she loves, she must find a way to live inside the system. As such, this is a film that examines macro-politics adeptly on a micro-scale, with the social context drip-feeding through snatched radio broadcasts or news reports. Character details begin to make perfect sense as we see the bigger picture - Jean commutes a long way so that she doesn’t see any a students outside school; she won’t socialise with any of her colleagues; she won’t let even her sister meet Viv. Jean might actively support her local lesbian community, but she must insistently remain as private as she can. And, of course, this take a huge toll on her relationship.
This could easily have been a salacious film, but not once does it wander into Notes On A Scandal territory, with the story focused entirely on the consequences of Section 28. There might be plenty of unpleasantness on show from the students, but the real villain here is Margaret Thatcher. Her discriminatory policy is played out through multitudinous micro-aggressions angled toward the mere whiff of anything gay by staff who are completely oblivious of who is in the room with them.
As someone who went through a British school under the cloud of Section 28, this is a film that I can attest rings painfully true. With institutionalised homophobia on show trickling from the top down, this is a compelling and important film about how a government irreparably scarred an entire generation of young LGBTs, leaving their teachers often in untenable positions.
Masterfully composed and richly executed, this is a cautionary smorgasbord of painful truths about Britain’s educational past. Ringing loud like a klaxon, it underlines how important it is to understand our past in order to improve our future. Anyone who grow up gay in a British school - or anywhere else too - should make a bee-line to see this film.
UK Release: Out now to watch on VOD, released by Altitude.