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- Reviewed during the 2022 Venice International Film Festival
The idea of a queer variation on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) is a nifty one, and for the most part Georgia Oakley’s Blue Jean pulls it off: this story of a gay P.E. teacher whose sexuality threatens her professional standing has style to spare, and is anchored by a commanding performance from Rosy McEwen.
We meet Jean as she heads to work; filmed in intimate proximity by cinematographer Vincent Seguin, she turns her back to the audience, listening to a Radio 4 segment about Section 28. A lot of storytelling and character work happens in these first seconds: the premise of the film is set up, and Jean’s diffident, unknowable character is established. Over the course of the film, she will be a most slippery protagonist, McEwen never succumbing to the audience-pleasing grandstanding of Maggie Smith in her Oscar-winning performance as Jean Brodie.
We observe McEwen’s Jean interacting with pupils with easy authority, before heading to a gay club after work, where she meets up with her girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and various lesbian friends. The film shifts between these two universes – the increasingly claustrophobic school and the more liberated queer community to which Jean, who is still connecting with her sexuality, tentatively belongs. Soon, a new pupil, Lois (Lucy Halliday), joins Jean’s netball classes, and when she appears at the bar one night and gathers that her teacher is gay, it appears to spell danger for Jean’s job.
Oakley, in her directorial debut, adroitly seizes upon the tension of this premise, greatly abetted by a fine performance from McEwen, who with every mannerism and utterance suggests somebody completely hobbled by fear. At the heart of the film is the question: when Lois is bullied at school for her sexuality, can Jean stand by her pupil while protecting her own job? It isn’t easy for a film to have such a non-committal protagonist, and Oakley should be greatly commended for not picking the easy way out. Nevertheless, the film resorts to a few narrative shortcuts, particularly in the simplistic opposition it draws between Jean and her more liberated girlfriend. Hayes gives a note-perfect performance as Viv, showing how her queerness is central to her warm and open character – but too many conversations between the two women seem to enact a rigid argument about queer identity. These more facile moments threaten to undo the film’s fine work on setting and character; clichés such as Jean coming out to a stranger at a party and then having a laugh-crying epiphany while watching cantering horses in a field is too heavy for the film’s more delicate framework. But the handful of wearisome moments (which also include crowbarred radio news bulletins about Section 28; secondary characters spelling out the stakes; and muted audio to signify panic) are largely absorbed into what is, finally, a touching story told with sensitivity.
In a low budget package with no fripperies, the cinematography and design stand out, with arresting tableaux that frame McEwen’s alabaster complexion and tightly coiled expressions against rich blue backdrops (which some might consider overkill, in tandem with the blue of the movie’s title). A scene where Jean, driven to distraction, confronts Lois in the nightclub bathroom is handled ably, milking the moment for tension and seizing the pair, in this red background, in a kind of hellish desperation. The 80s setting is perfectly executed, save for the odd anachronistic idiom; hair and costumes are on point. But best of all is the sheer queerness of the project. Viv and her friends’ otherness is clear, and an inviting sense of community is created in language, appearance and sexuality. Women’s bodies are filmed with an elating lack of regard for the male eye. That queerness helps the narrative immeasurably, conveying the difficulty with which Jean straddles both worlds; how she must tamp down her very selfhood in order to get by.
Ultimately, Oakley’s twisty, sometimes discomfiting story sets up more questions than the film can answer, particularly with regard to class privilege. But it’s a strength in Blue Jean that knots are left untied, wounds unhealed. Where The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie gave us a woman kicking against the establishment and fighting for her independence, Blue Jean shows how impossible that struggle is for its queer heroine in a straight and straitening world; what a feat of courage it would take, and just how much could be lost thereby.