Blue Jean, review: this brave British debut is surely a slam-dunk masterpiece

Rosy McEwen Blue Jean Venice - Helen Sifre
Rosy McEwen Blue Jean Venice - Helen Sifre

As the stunningly brave British debut Blue Jean opens, Jean (Rosy McEwen) dyes her hair in a spiky blonde crop while gazing critically in the bathroom mirror. She’s cadging a little off David Bowie’s look, in the music video for the lustful 1984 hit single that shares this film’s title. That promo featured both an edgy, queer-punk Bowie and a square, besuited one, which is entirely germane.

We’re in 1988 Tyneside, and Jean, a divorcée now in a gay relationship with Viv (Kerrie Hayes), is also a PE teacher, and not out to any of the faculty at her school, even if whispered giggling among her pupils is well under way. It was in May of 1988 that Thatcher’s government brought in Section 28, not only forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools, but opening up every gay teacher to persecution merely for existing.

In this deeply paranoid moment at the peak of the Aids crisis, Jean has no choice but to watch her back, as colleagues in the staffroom listen to the moral panic over the airwaves and mutter approvingly.

In one of Jean’s classes, there’s a new girl called Lois (Lucy Halliday), a 15-year-old, sports-shy loner who’s instantly bullied as a lesbian, especially by troublemaking redhead Siobhan (Lydia Page, terrific as a minx, and funny, too). Up to a point, Jean can step in; but to take Lois’s side too ardently is to expose herself to hot-button aspersions that she’s a groomer or a paedophile.

Writer-director Georgia Oakley, debuting with an incisive drama that grips like a thriller, confronts a vein of prejudice here that throbs deeply inside our culture wars today: the stigmas that Section 28 enshrined are anything but solved. Her film convinces minutely, with every moody needle-drop and stiff drinks-party exchange, as a period piece about terror, ostracisation, and betrayal.

Jean has a sister with children, who finds her lifestyle troubling and clearly preferred her in the previous incarnation when she was safely married. Meanwhile, her relationship with Viv is a very delicate thing to put at stake – so prone to crumbling because of the double life Jean’s being forced to lead.

Hayes, who conveys Viv’s bruised qualities with such tendresse, and the gifted newcomer Halliday, could not be better. But the film belongs wholeheartedly to the amazing McEwen, who shows us a Jean giving up on herself in stages, punch-drunk, out for the count, and makes the character’s vulnerabilities every bit as persuasive as her aloof façade. She has a mighty scene laughing privately at the absurd ironies of her situation, and crying – it’s both – and we watch an actor mastering a moment with our jaws fairly on the floor.

Layered this deeply and played this movingly, Jean’s fight-or-flight dilemma is such that I’m already tempted to call Oakley’s film a slam-dunk masterpiece, before time proves me right. It's so rare in British cinema to see the "L" in "LGBTQ+" up there in such bold type, which makes Blue Jean not only a biting look at this historical moment but a riveting act of redress.

Cert TBC, 94 min. Screening at the Venice Film Festival. UK release date TBC