Venice 2022 review: Blue Jean (Georgia Oakley)

“Ultimately, the film simply conveys the message that it is often those seemingly inconsequential acts of defiance, whether in private or public, that make the most impact, since they usually lead to the most poignant and significant moments of liberation.”

On occasion we find films that serve two very different purposes coming together to form something quite special. In the case of Blue Jean, the feature-length directorial debut of Georgia Oakley, we see the convergence of social issues and historical drama in a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations of a young woman in 1980s England. She is coming to terms with her own identity as a lesbian while the government of Margaret Thatcher is enforcing Section 28, a draconian law that forbade “the promotion of homosexuality”, especially within the educational sphere, in an attempt to prevent the corruption of impressionable minds. This is certainly not the first instance of a film tackling this awful law (which has been fully off the books for less than twenty years), but it is amongst the most compelling, carrying with it a sense of social consciousness and awareness that many of these films seem to lack. The director is drawing from several sources, clearly inspired by the kitchen-sink realism that commanded British cinema half a century ago, infusing a sense of delicate but forthright complexity into this compassionate character study that carefully unpacks the horrendous social and cultural conditions the queer community faced only a few decades ago.

Social issues dramas often tend towards being either excessive in how they deliver their message, or far too subtle. Oakley’s approach finds the right balance between the two, offering poignant insights into the subject without claiming to be the definitive text. This is particularly important considering this is a film set in the past (and has therefore been subjected to previous instances of artistic expression), and that it is always going to be looking at these events in hindsight. Unlike other social issues dramas, Blue Jean actively avoids being heavy-handed and refuses to be even vaguely exploitative or emotionally manipulative. This plays a part in moving the discourse away from the circumstances surrounding the proverbial “gay panic” that has unfortunately always factored into many countries’ social history, and more towards the personal journeys these people experience. Blue Jean is a film about finding your identity in a hostile world, one in which acceptance is seen as a rare commodity, a privilege enjoyed by very few. As a result the film is propelled by a deep sadness, as well as an aura of suspense, which work together to create a genuinely unsettling psychological thriller that plays on the paranoia and sense of danger felt by these individuals in a time when one’s identity could be the catalyst for both social and legal disruption of their lives.

The character of Jean is certainly a fascinating one, in both theory and execution. A reflective young woman who leads two very different lives without being duplicitous (instead just compartmentalizing where different aspects of her identity belong in terms of her personal and professional life), she is a compelling protagonist. Oakley constructs a memorable character, but it is Rosy McEwen who truly brings her to life, delivering one of the most impressive performances of the year. Behind those striking blue eyes lies a wealth of complexity, and McEwen infuses every moment with a nuance that adds to the extraordinary realism of the film. Blue Jean functions as a quiet, internal examination of a woman undergoing a great deal of introspection as she processes her own shifting perspective, as well as gaining the courage to step out of the shadows of socially mediated shame, and instead embrace her identity. In hindsight this may seem like a simple process, but the social conditions that govern this narrative show that even just expressing your identity could be dangerous and potentially lead to career-ending consequences. McEwen embodies every aspect of this, playing the character of Jean as not only a well-crafted individual, but as a representative of the many queer people under this repulsive system that were never able to express themselves and live as freely as they desired. It’s an enormous task, but McEwen manages to capture every emotion in vivid detail, in what is undeniably going to be seen as a major career breakthrough for this enormously gifted young performer.

When an artist sets out to create a work that is primarily motivated by the desire to explore the concept of identity, it is immediately going to be something valuable, since there are simply not enough works that explore the importance of self-discovery, at least in terms of provoking very important and honest conversations. Blue Jean is a remarkable film not only for what it explores, but also for the manner in which it is done. Oakley plumbs the emotional depths of a young woman on a voyage to self-acceptance, one that may be harrowing at times, but is ultimately taking her closer to a place of genuine happiness, one step at a time. This film approaches the subject with an abundance of compassion and a genuine admiration for the many people who endured similar conditions, both those that broke free of the shackles of societal pressure, and those that were forced to remain hidden, their stories just as integral as those who were able to express themselves freely against all odds. Blue Jean finds poetry in those melancholic moments, whether it be small expressions that can be reaffirming to those struggling with their identity or the bolder exclamations of rebellion. Ultimately, the film simply conveys the message that it is often those seemingly inconsequential acts of defiance, whether in private or public, that make the most impact, since they usually lead to the most poignant and significant moments of liberation.