Writer-director Georgia Oakley’s impressive directorial debut Blue Jean is a compelling character study set in northern England in 1988, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government is about to pass the notorious Section 28 of the local Government Act which stigmatized the nation’s gay and lesbian population, stoking homophobia—both societal and internal—at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK. With similarities to the current wave of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in the United States, Section 28 (only fully repealed in 2003) was designed to prohibit homosexuality from being “promoted” by local councils and state schools, including teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. As Thatcher put it in her Conservative party conference speech in 1987, “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
It is in this climate that we meet a young lesbian physical education teacher, Jean (a mesmerizing Rosy McEwen), who is deeply closeted at work but tries her best to relax with her queer friends and girlfriend Viv (a terrific Kerrie Hayes) in her down time. When Jean’s attempts to keep those two worlds separate begins to fall apart with arrival of a new student at her school, and in her social life, the pressure mounts from all sides.
With Blue Jean now playing at New York’s IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center (before opening in more US cities on Friday, June 16th), filmmaker Georgia Oakley and lead actress Rosy McEwen speak exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about the BAFTA-nominated film, which won the Venice Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award when it world premiered, before going on to win four British Independent Film Awards.
What sense of responsibility did you feel to honour the stories of the women who had taught in schools under section 28?
Rosy McEwen: “I got the script and I loved the character and the story—I was like, ‘this is amazing’—all with my actor head on. Then everything changed for me the moment I met Catherine who had been a teacher at that time. We had this three-hour FaceTime and one of the first things that she said to me was, ‘I wish I’d been braver’. That made my heartbreak and I could see how emotional she still was about the way she had behaved. She said, ‘looking back now, knowing how much has changed, I wish I could have broken free from that invisible shackle’. I remember thinking, this is not about me or me being a really good actor, this is about me telling the story right because it’s still so sensitive, it’s still so fresh, and ultimately, so much of what happens in the film is still so relevant to what happens today. So speaking to her changed everything for me. It was very precious.”
Georgia Oakley: “I felt a huge responsibility in telling this story that was inspired by these women’s experiences. At the beginning, when we met a handful of women they were all really excited by the prospect of a film being made about section 28 and specifically about their experiences as PE teachers at that time. The first time we shared the script with them, I felt awfully nervous. I’ve never felt like that before. It was so different from giving the script to the financiers and to everyone else. I think it’s really interesting the way that they responded, not just the script, but then to the finished film itself. How there was this kind of splintered off side of themselves, even 30 years later, they still had this dual reaction to the character and the way the character behaves.”
“When they watched the film for the first time, they spoke about wanting to shake Jean as the younger version of themselves and say ‘why can’t you just be braver?’ But at the same time, they felt like they wanted to give the younger version of themselves a hug. When we initially gave them the script for feedback they were conflicted. They felt like it was a very accurate portrayal of their lives, but at the same time it was almost like they didn’t want to admit that because there was so much shame and guilt wrapped up in those experiences and their behaviour. Even though they had volunteered those experiences to us and we put them into the film, there was some thorniness in their first reactions to the script in terms of how they felt about their younger selves. Speaking to them added such an extra element to the whole experience of making the film, and positively for sure.”
I love what the film explores, it’s not so much about the legislation itself, but what it stirred up and emboldened in terms of homophobia and internalized homophobia. We see Jean in these very different environments, like the the tension and stress of school and the girls locker room and then there’s the comparative safety of the queer bars. Could you talk about Jean existing in these distinctive environments?
Georgia: “The film was always a character study that hinged upon the movement of the character between those spaces. How she behaves and how she feels and what kind of levels of anxiety she’s going through. When I worked with my script editor, instead of talking about the script in terms of acts or turning points, we spoke about it in terms of locations. What happens to her and the way she behaves is very much location based. That was a huge part of building the visual language for the film. The spaces aren’t designed to exist in and of themselves, they’re designed to be in dialogue with each other in terms of the colour palettes and the relationship between the characters. The locations were also a huge part of my conversations with Rosy, in terms of what Jean is going through in those different spaces. We tried to do everything we could to populate the spaces to make them feel lived-in. Most people would bring a lot of baggage to the sports hall or the locker room. Everybody had their own historical feelings around those spaces which they brought with them.”
Then that’s complicated with the arrival of Jean’s student Lois in the queer bar or Jean’s sister at her house. Then that suddenly changes.
Georgia: “Exactly. What happens when somebody encroaches? At the beginning, Jean’s spinning a lot of plates and she’s sort of succeeding, her life is ticking along. But what happens when something tips and somebody from the school environment penetrates that safe space at the bar or what happens when her sister comes over when she’s there with her with her girlfriend? Those carefully curated, sectioned off parts of her life begin to merge into each other and then she’s unable to keep up the pretense.”
Rosy: “We were very lucky to shoot by location. That really helped because a huge part of the film was these different masks that Jean wears. Our first location was Jean’s house, so it was a really nice way to settle into the way that she likes things. She’s very particular in her green dressing gown. As we moved through the shoot, there were different areas of her life that really surprised me and different parts of Jean would come out. When she’s with Viv—obviously there are moments of her being very guarded and pulling back and ultimately that’s the thing that breaks them—but there was also this beautiful freedom we found that she only had with Viv that she almost didn’t have when she was by herself. That really surprised me and it wasn’t the obvious answer. It was the same when she was at school teaching. When it was just her and the kids without anyone watching, there was a different element of her personality coming through. I always felt like Jean was like a teenage boy in the way that she moves and the way that she wants to live her life. It was in those two little pockets of her life where she found the most freedom. I actually wasn’t expecting that until we were in situ.”
One of my favorite sequences is the motorcycle ride with Viv and Jean. I like Grease 2, and as a kid I dreamed of seeing a queer version of the motorcycle ride in that film, so this is really beautiful to see and such a nice counterbalance to all the heteronormativity, “the propaganda” of “normal relationships” and of a “normal family life”, that surrounds Jean with television shows like Blind Date, which was actually one of my favourite shows when it was on, along with Thatcher’s rhetoric on the news.
Rosy: “It’s everywhere you look, even in the things you want to enjoy. You’re bombarded with heteronormativity, and ideas about the “normal family”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. That goes into your psyche. You’re digesting it and enjoying it without your blinkers up, and that’s the stuff that entrenches in you and causes trauma.”
Georgia: “That was one of the only sequences that moved from its place in the script to somewhere else. We moved it much earlier on because we decided in the edit that there was something really poignant about setting up their relationship as it could be, the future that they should be having, in that dreamy sequence of them on the motorbike and running into the sea. Straight after that they’re having fish and chips and they’re listening to something about Section 28 on the radio. From that point onwards, everything starts to unravel for Jean. So we moved the sequence there because it just felt like a marker of what her future could have looked like, but that was taken away. I always find that sequence really sad.”
Rosy: “I remember you telling me that the one of the notes you were given when we were filming was that that scene was going to end up on the cutting room floor. I was like, ‘no! This is the best’, but they kept on telling you that and so we almost weren’t going to film it.”
Georgia: “Yeah, over and over, I got told that. I was told to cut it many times. I’m quite happy that it’s still there.”
By James Kleinmann
Blue Jeans opens at IFC Center and Film at Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, June 9th, 2023 from. Magnolia Pictures, followed by Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Portland on Friday, June 16th.