Director Georgia Oakley talks about her powerful new film, which follows a young lesbian finding herself in Thatcher’s Britain
In an alternate reality, Atonement starred Keira Knightley, Rosy McEwen, and Georgia Oakley. McEwen and Oakley, both separately scouted at school, auditioned to play, respectively, the 13-year-old and 18-year-old versions of Briony: McEwen reached the final two, losing out to Saoirse Ronan; Oakley, side-lined for Romola Garai, was offered the consolation role of “Probationary Nurse”. “I was 17,” recalls Oakley. “No one in my family had a creative job. It seemed completely far out, but I became obsessed. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Now 34, Oakley is the writer-director of Blue Jean, a BAFTA-nominated, 1988-set drama about a lesbian PE teacher, Jean, played by, of all people, McEwen. (It’s unconfirmed whether Ronan also auditioned.) As the Bowie-referencing title suggests, Jean is a shapeshifter. At school, afraid of losing her job, she hides her sexual orientation, dodging post-work drinks as a natural reflex; at the weekend, she delights in Newcastle’s gay clubbing scene, unleashing her true self alongside her girlfriend, Viv (Kerrie Hayes).
In the backdrop is Margaret Thatcher and Section 28, a ruling that outlawed the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. Already feeling hypocritical, Jean faces further soul-searching when a student, Lois (Lucy Halliday), reveals that she’s also gay, even turning up at Jean’s favourite LGBTQ-friendly bar. However, when Lois faces homophobic bullying in the changing rooms, Jean feels reluctant to intervene, preferring to stay in the closet at work. “How is that girl ever going to learn she has a place in the world?” Viv asks. “What makes you think she has a place in the world?” Jean responds.
Speaking to me the week of its theatrical release, Oakley admits she hadn’t heard of Section 28 before 2017, the year she started developing Blue Jean. “I was living in Dalston at the time, in a very vibrant, queer community, or at least it seemed that way, and lots of people didn’t know about Section 28 who were my age or younger,” Oakley says. “It seemed like the people who knew about it were involved in reactionary movements and remembered the marches.” She did further research in media archives, finding barely any mention over the years. “Even when it was repealed in 2003, there wasn’t much press. Younger audience members in particular are shocked about it. They keep telling me they can’t believe they weren’t taught about it at school.”
Despite being a British film set during the Thatcher era, Blue Jean defies the drab, homework-y aesthetic one might expect. For starters, Oakley’s debut feature, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, adopts the bright, alluring gaze of a European arthouse film. The light, fading colour palette, all shot on grainy 16mm, reflects the Paris-based cinematographer Victor Seguin arriving in the UK and finding Newcastle “exotic”.
Throughout our conversation, I learn more about Oakley’s attention to detail with regard to mise-en-scène, production design, colours, and so on. When a news report plays in the staff room, for instance, zooms are used to pinpoint Jean’s paranoia (“like a hunted deer”) amongst oblivious teachers. In the club, more spontaneity is allowed. “We had a different approach for each space. Jean’s able to relax when she’s at home with Viv, but when she’s alone, we communicate this feeling of being observed. We picked shots adding to that sense of danger that exists, even in her own home.”
Oakley knew in advance that Viv would have tattoos, leather, and a shaved head. In the screenplay, though, the character is described as “hard on the outside, soft in the middle, like a Tunnock’s Tea Cake”, thus communicating a sense of fragility. “It was interesting to come up against the assumptions made by having a butch lesbian as the co-lead of a film,” Oakley says. “Some people read the script and pictured a stereotype. But for me, Kerrie was exactly how I imagined Viv.”
Oakley continues, “As a queer woman, I felt that lesbian relationships weren’t often in the way I had experienced them onscreen. It’s rare to start a film, and for there to be a lesbian relationship in full swing. I wanted to show two women in their tracksuits, on the sofa, having a laugh, watching telly, before everything goes wrong. I wanted to fast-forward past the part where they met, and get straight to something that felt honest to me, and that I felt there was a lack of in cinema.
“Always, lesbian films seem to be about desperate longing and the leadup to the start of a relationship, as opposed to presenting something that allows you to imagine how it might have started, which is what we often get with heterosexual relationships in films.”
‘Always, lesbian films seem to be about desperate longing and the leadup to the start of a relationship, as opposed to presenting something that allows you to imagine how it might have started’ – Georgia Oakley
Even if Blue Jean marks Oakley’s debut feature, some deep Googling (and finding pages of her website that were removed from the menu) reveals that she’s had numerous projects in development over the years. The one she’s comfortable acknowledging is a movie adaptation of Anna Hope’s novel Expectation she’s writing with Clémence Poésy, the latter set to direct. Blue Jean, though, has been a lengthy process, right down to an interview in 2018 (the earliest online I could find) in which Oakley says that even if God’s Own Country and Call Me By Your Name can “commercialise queer narratives”, her forthcoming film “wouldn’t be realistic if it was a happy ending”.
Reflecting on the quote now, Oakley states she feels the same. “It felt like a positive thing that queer filmmakers of the UK were being encouraged to focus more on the sugar-coated elements of the queer narrative and celebrate queer joy, as opposed to queer angst,” she says. “But we need to have all sorts of queer stories. We need to have more romcoms, Call Me By Your Name, and beautiful love stories like God’s Own Country with a couple staying together. But we also need to be able to dig up, whether it be our past or present, the knottier, more complex parts of being queer.
“I felt that I was living in a bubble in London, and many people involved in financing films were also part of that bubble. At that time, there was a feeling of: ‘We’ve moved on. Everything’s fine now.’ That wasn’t my experience, and I felt like I had to be honest about my experience. Although the film’s set in the 80s, it’s infused with so many of my life experiences, anecdotes, and microaggressions I’ve been on the receiving end of, and continue to be, every day. It felt positive to address that as a human being.”
She adds, “I wasn’t going to listen to the fact that everyone wanted celebratory queer narratives. The good thing is, we’ll continue to get both. I just think that encouraging one thing or the other is problematic.”
Blue Jean will be released in cinemas across the UK & Ireland on 10 February. Visit Altitude.Film for more information