There’s a fair bit of broad telly drama acting in this 80s-period movie from first time British feature director Georgia Oakley, set in the homophobic era of Margaret Thatcher and the notorioussection 28 of the Local Government Act. In fact, the film sometimes feels something like Russell T Davies with some Prisoner Cell Block H thrown in. But it’s certainly forthright, with some soap-operatic force.
In the style of other Maggie-era Britfilms of the moment, characters seem to start their day listening intently to prim-voiced BBC radio newsreaders regaling them with the latest Thatcherite travesty, and connoisseurs of the time might groan or cringe at the TV clip Oakley uses here of Tory peer and historian Lord Beloff, banging on in the upper house about the utter superiority of the heterosexual family unit.
The setting is the north-east, and Rosy McEwen plays Jean, a gay woman who teaches PE at a secondary school, and has enthused a lot of the girls and even some of the boys about the school netball team. Jean has endured a failed (straight) marriage; she is alienated from her ailing mother and has a strained relationship with her married sister, but is happily in a relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes). Jean has cut her hair short and dyed it blond, and now cultivates a cool, elegant image like Rosamund Pike or Nicole Kidman. The movie shows us that she is partly very pleased with the stylish new persona she projects but is also uneasy with the secret it is there to conceal and protect. She has to make sure her employers don’t find out she is gay: homophobia has always been bad and the section 28 row threatens to make it worse. On Saturday nights, Jean finds herself hate-watching that heterosexual festival, Blind Date with Cilla Black.
Jean then finds herself ambiguously preoccupied with, though not necessarily attracted to, a new pupil: Lois (Lucy Halliday). Lois also appears to be aware of the chemistry in the air as Jean stalks through the changing rooms, to the annoyance of a spiteful girl called Siobhan (Lydia Page) who herself has a crush on Jean. Lois shows up at the gay club that Jean frequents with Viv and the tension is to lead to calamity, with Jean questioning her politically timid attitude.
Blue Jean is interestingly one of those films which could almost have been made in the era in which it’s set: it is very redolent of the 80s. The script could have been a little bit more developed to indicate exactly how the situation with Lois was finally resolved, and at what cost, but Blue Jean is certainly watchable and engaged with the issues.
• Blue Jean screened at the Venice film festival and is released on 10 February in UK cinemas.
• This article was amended on 6 September 2022 to correct confusion over the name of the character of Lois.