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Relevant today, 'Blue Jean' depicts impact of anti-gay legislation in 1980s Britain


A teacher faces difficult choices in "Blue Jean," the first feature from filmmaker Georgia Oakley. The story takes place in 1980s England, but our critic Bob Mondello says it could easily be set in many American communities today.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1988. Jean is a secondary school gym teacher in the northeast of Britain who wants her students to know more than just how to spike a volleyball.


ROSY MCEWEN: (As Jean) Can anyone tell me what fight or flight means? I'm not just talking about netball. Instincts - I'm talking about instincts. The body responds far quicker than the brain. Faced with sudden danger, the body begins to respond before the brain has even thought about it.

MONDELLO: Jean has been mostly on the flight side of this equation outside of school, keeping her private life private, listening warily to news reports on her Walkman as she jogs daily past a billboard headlined, are your children being taught traditional moral values?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We care about the perpetuation of the heterosexual normal family as the basis of civilized society here and in other countries.

MONDELLO: Maggie Thatcher's been Britain's prime minister for almost a decade at this point, and her conservative government is in the process of passing legislation stigmatizing LGBTQ people. Jean, while in a long-term relationship, is essentially closeted, cautious even with family.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sam) Who's that?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) Sammy, this is my friend Viv. Viv, this is Sammy.

KERRIE HAYES: (As Viv) Hiya.

MCEWEN: (As Jean) Come watch telly for five minutes, OK?

MONDELLO: Viv registered the equivocation there.


HAYES: (As Viv) Friend, is it?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) He's 5.

HAYES: (As Viv) And?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) Don't.

HAYES: (As Viv) Don't what?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) Well, don't tell me how to be in me own family.

HAYES: (As Viv) OK.

MONDELLO: Jean's already-precarious position grows more complicated when she spots a student in the gay pub she frequents, a girl who's comfortable enough with her sexuality to choose not flight but fight when bullied at school.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Me get off it (ph)?

MONDELLO: "Blue Jean" feels lived-in and immediate enough that it's startling to discover that writer-director Georgia Oakley was just born in 1988, when Britain's notorious Section 28 was enshrining homophobia in law, or maybe not startling, given the recent push for anti-gay and anti-trans laws in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere. Oakley uses 1980s news broadcasts...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Positive images of homosexuality prompted a violent response from protesting parents.

MONDELLO: ...To demonstrate how little the prejudice and the legislation it prompts has changed.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Provisions are that homosexuality must not be promoted in state schools, and it outlaws teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

MONDELLO: Oakley's portrait of the impact of the since-repealed Section 28 is persuasive enough to make "Blue Jean" feel like a documentary at times. The world in which Rosy McEwen's Jean feels so embattled is recreated in chilly pastels on sometimes-grainy film stock, relieved with warmer reds and pinks only when she's at her girlfriend's apartment or in the boisterous gay pub - spaces where the anxiety she mostly keeps hidden can be expressed.


MCEWEN: (As Jean) If anyone found out, I'd never work again.

HAYES: (As Viv) What about her?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) Who?

HAYES: (As Viv) That girl. Come on. How old is she - what? - 16? What kind of example are you setting for her?

MCEWEN: (As Jean) That's not fair.

HAYES: (As Viv) None of this is fair.

MONDELLO: That the characters still managed to find hope and solidarity in community is what gives "Blue Jean" its emotional punch, a reminder that even in trying times, journeys to self-acceptance are possible. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ROE'S "DREAMSCAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.