Dyeing one’s hair into something other than its natural color is a true act of rebellion. So, when debutant director Georgia Oakley’s ‘Blue Jean’ opens with our protagonist dyeing her hair, you are instantly put into a headspace of a rebel. However, that very image is soon shattered when the lonesome Jean (Rosy McEwen) is unable to stand up and be open about her sexuality. Of course, people around her know that she is a lesbian, but some sort of invisible wall or a sense of fear doesn’t allow her to completely open her wings and fly.
Set in 1988, under Margret Thatcher’s conservative government, the movie follows middle-aged Jean – a gym teacher, living alone after her marriage did not work out. If living under such a repressive regime is not enough, Jean lives in a traditionalist neighborhood – one that doesn’t allow anything that feels like ‘a pretend family relationship’ and a workplace that isn’t far removed from it either. So, despite rebelling against that norm, Jean lives a life of pretend, trying to keep her job and sanity alive. She does head out of this pretense for a little while. A local gay pub is her solace, and her partner, Viv (Kerrie Hayes), is madly into her.
However, news stories about Section 28 – prohibition of the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and Margaret Thatcher’s wish for the citizens to follow ‘traditional moral values’ is getting to her. The conflict in her mind – being a teacher to rebellious teenagers, truly embracing her sexuality, and the fear of losing a job that compartmentalizes her life leads her to dizzy spells.
The introduction of a new student, who essentially embodies the person she wants to be, further throws her off her own scent but also pushes her to take the essential step for change. Lois (Lucy Halliday), the young, wild, and vulnerable new student in her school, also starts to visit her lesbian bar. This unknowingly puts a burden on Jean, who has been quietly leading a life of secrecy without anything tumbling the dominos.
Now, much of Georgia Oakley’s directorial debut hinges on Rosy McEwen’s ability to channel the pain and frustration of women who have to confront their own truth. McEwen plays Jean as a quiet, traumatized person who somehow puts up a brave front but is unable to breathe properly. The tension in her mind to just shout at a single person about her reality is palpable, and McEwen conveys it with gentle, intimate brushes of honesty. Kerrie Hayes and Lydia Page ably support her as people who have unloaded that burden but are also aware that being queer is a constant state of rebellion.
Hélène Sifre, who has written the film, conveys the true nature of being queer, and the fact that her writing still stands true makes it all the more powerful. That said, I believe the period piece lacks a bit of authenticity. In trying to replicate the bigoted era of Margret Thatcher’s regime, we are never provided with a sense of political urgency.
All the uprisings and cultural clashes are put into the background, and only radio chatter is the way we can really understand what’s going on beyond the few characters we meet. It also doesn’t help that the queer culture that the film so boastfully portrays is never truly explored beyond the gay club and one big party, further taking you away from experience.
That said, Blue Jean is a compelling drama about the need for rebellion, not as an act of defiance but as an act of self-actualization.