Blue Jean isn’t a love story, it's a story of self-acceptance. The final scenes of queer joy prove there is hope; you have a place in this world.
WRITTEN BY TRESCA MALLON / FEBRUARY 3, 2023
The quiet ordinariness of Blue Jean’s first frames set the stage for this beautiful film about self-acceptance, community and the fear of “sticking out like a sore thumb". Our protagonist Jean (Rosy McEwan) slowly mixes a bowl of peroxide, lathers in over her short hair and lingers for a moment to stare at her reflection. We don’t know if she likes what she sees.
In a feat of world-building, Blue Jean catapults us into 1980s post-industrial north-east England and Thatcher’s tyranny is in full swing. Jean drives to her work at a local school. The radio news presenter is discussing Clause 28, a law introduced by Thatcher’s government which outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality.’ Jean is a lesbian and signals of her exclusion permeate the film. On the radio, the tv and even billboards, the symbols of hate surround her and as the film progresses grow increasingly sinister.
The care and attention Rosy McEwan pays to every aspect of this character is a marvel. She conveys every moment of terror, vulnerability, reluctant affection and innocence with an easy grace. Jean is straddling two worlds, never fully fitting in either. While she is completely out of place in the drab and claustrophobic environment of the staff room and her sister’s sanitised house, she is still somewhat isolated among the overtly queer and eclectic environment of the lesbian bar. While the latter offers her a safe haven, a place to be openly affectionate with her partner Viv (Kerrie Hayes) and a community, this world has its own rules, power dynamics and ecosystem. Her internalised homophobia creates a barrier between her and full acceptance.
The moments when her self-hatred bubble to the surface are painful and manifest themselves in her reticence to accept or guide her student, Lois (Lucy Halliday) whose burgeoning sexuality provokes hostility rather than support from Jean. The only place Jean is confident, the place she fits, is standing in front of her pupils, being a teacher. Lois disrupts this by simply being her fiercely defiant self. When Viv confronts her about her attempt to distance from her student, Jean exclaims ‘what makes you think she has a place in this world?’ Lois is her mirror and this time we know she doesn’t like what she sees.
Kerrie Hayes is a force equal to, if completely in contrast to McEwan. The chemistry between Hayes and McEwan is gorgeous. There’s a palpable tension between them which is incredibly sexy but also playful and deeply soulful. Viv lives in the subversive, she is happy to live on the margins if it means being her authentic self. She has a chosen family to support and fully accept her. And most importantly she fully accepts herself. Her nipple tattoo is a defiant symbol - like a house crest or country flag - of her membership of the community she inhabits with a group of other visibly queer women. While symbols can act as a unifying force to empower and instil solidarity for marginalised people, it can also have the unfortunate and often unintentional impact of exclusion. Jean fears the association with this community as much as she craves to be a part of it. She bites back; ‘Just cuz I don’t parade my sexuality around like a badge of honour!’
Alongside the work from the phenomenal cast and the inspired directorial choices from Georgia Oakley, for whom this is a first feature, the cinematography and the soundtrack solidify the tone throughout the film. The use of film makes the picture wonderfully tactile and aids the period piece immensely. In the wide shots particularly, the camera never takes the focus from Jean as she sits in a hostile or uncomfortable environment, often surrounded by people yet this focus totally isolates her. The score, increasingly ominous as the walls close in around her, is effectual while never feeling overbearing or over dramatic.
There are moments of subtle humour which intricately undercut the most tense moments. A prime example is the scene in the diner in which Jean and Viv finally confront the cavern between them. Despite neither of them wanting it, they begin to realise that at this point in their lives they can’t be together. As Viv storms from the diner Jean is left in pure devastation and lights a cigarette. The voice of a diner worker chimes, ‘You can’t smoke in here, pet’ and Jean, as tears trip her, shoves the ashtray in front of her ‘Well what’s this here for then?!’ A perfectly small, human moment that lifts what could have been the unbearable weight of the scene.
Hope is a defining feature of Blue Jean. Just as it feels as though the walls are closing in and there is nothing left for our protagonist, she pushes back. In one of the final scenes, Jean comes out to a friend of her brother-in-law. While the moment she dryly says, ‘I’m a lesbian’ has an on-the-nose quality, the unbridled joy as she walks away is undeniably cathartic. Yes, coming out is rarely so clean cut, but seeing that moment of freedom portrayed on screen will never cease to be triumphant.
The final scene of quiet devastation on the bannister between Jean and Viv, the weight of everything unsaid, their history together and the possibility of their future apart, is so beautifully contrasted with the ecstasy of the party in the next room. This couple doesn't get a happy ending but that’s ok because Blue Jean isn’t a love story, it's a story of self-acceptance. The final scenes of queer joy prove there is hope; you have a place in this world.