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A young woman with a cropped crop carefully retouches her blonde dye job in the compelling opening moments of Denim blue, painting the goo into his hair with practical efficiency to the shimmering notes of Chris Roe’s score. Moving from the bathroom to the living room of her dingy apartment, she settles down on the sofa to watch Blind date, described by raucous host Cilla Black as “The show that tries to find a boy and girl who go together like birds of a feather.” This might seem exclusivist or even microaggression to some more politically inclined queer viewers. For Jean, it’s just pleasant trifle.
The scene subtly foreshadows an internal conflict played out with sensitive insight and dramatic tension in writer-director Georgia Oakley’s highly assured feature debut and in a rousing performance awash with mostly repressed feelings from Rosy McEwen in her first lead role.
Trenchant and unfortunately still current.
Place: Provincetown Film Festival
Release date: Friday 9 June
Launch: Rosy McEwen, Kerrie Hayes, Lucy Halliday, Lydia Page, Aoife Kennan
Director-writer: Georgia Oakley
1 hour and 37 minutes
The production has been garnering acclaim on the festival circuit since its premiere in Venice last fall. Winner of four British Independent Film Awards, it had a limited release in the US through Magnolia earlier this month. In its modest way, Denim blueThe confident originality of made me think of other groundbreaking UK films that bring freshness and clarity to their queer gaze: Andrew Haigh Weekendby Frances Lee God’s countrypink glass Saint Maud and Charlotte Wells After sun high among them.
A distinctive aspect of the film is that it is a drama deeply rooted in an incendiary political issue, but in which activism remains the underlying storyline for an intimate character study.
Set in north-east England in 1988, it provides a snapshot of the time when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was pushing through proposed legislation known as Section 28, making it illegal to ‘promote’ homosexuality in state schools or sanction it as a acceptable family relationship. Similarities to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and similar moves in other red states will escape no one in the U.S.
We hear Thatcher and other Conservatives braying on TV (“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay”); we see billboards around town; we hear the news of a group of lesbian activists abseiling from the public gallery of the House of Lords to the floor of the House.
But there are no didactic discussions from Jean’s proud and proud butcher girlfriend Viv (Kerrie Hayes) or her circle of friends, despite their disgust at the prospect of Section 28; nor from Jean’s colleagues, some of them supportive, at the high school where she works as a gym teacher. Any mention of the proposed legislation (passed that year, in Scotland until 2000 and in England and Wales until 2003) meshes seamlessly into the conversation. Oakley even refuses to add the usual postscript conveying such data.
These choices intensify the focus on Jean as a young woman who has embraced her sexuality: She has been through a heterosexual marriage and divorce, and has come out to her family, at least to her “tolerant” but judgmental sister Sasha. (Aoife Kennan). – but she remains hidden in her professional life. She won’t even let Viv call her at work, let alone come to a game with the girls’ netball team she coaches.
If this sounds like a queer variant of British bog misery, it’s not. The astonishingly shot film’s (by talented DP Victor Seguin) sense of place and time is vital and evocative (who doesn’t love an invigorating jolt of New Order?) and the looming threat to LGBTQ freedoms is palpable. But the social realism is infused with lyrical moments: some training scenes on the netball court are captured with dreamlike beauty, along with a hint of danger fueled by teenage hormone rush, rivalries and bullying.
There’s also a joyful sense of community in the hangout scenes at a local lesbian bar or the women’s housing cooperative where Viv lives with a close group who have taken Jean in but perhaps see her as a work in progress, beyond her obvious mutual passion with Vivi. At one point, Viv appears to speak for the group when she describes Jean as “skittish… like a deer in headlights.”
Jean’s efforts to stay under the radar at school are tested when estranged student Lois (Lucy Halliday) joins the team soon after seeing Jean in the pub. The new player is initially ostracized, but gains acceptance once he scores the winning goal in a match. This doesn’t sit well with the team’s mean alpha girl Siobhan (Lydia Page), who begins taunting Lois, quickly escalating into a homophobic slur.
Meanwhile, Lois begins hanging out on the fringes of Viv’s group, and Jean’s threats to kick her off the team if she keeps coming to the café causes friction. But the real crisis comes when Jean witnesses a physical assault between Lois and Siobhan and is forced to take sides in a disciplinary meeting.
Oakley’s screenplay draws on the experience of oppressed lesbians under Section 28, and that verisimilitude informs every moment of McEwen’s quiet but emotional performance, tension playing itself out in telltale flickers on her face.
Jean believes an essential part of her job is to create boundaries, but the degree to which she has compartmentalized her sexuality inevitably causes cracks in its carefully guarded veneer. Even the relaxed but firm way he keeps the students in line is faltering. The pressure is most acutely felt in her relationship with Viv, who chafes at Jean’s internalized homophobia and knows from past experience that she protects herself from the pain engendered by a partner whose self-acceptance has conditions. Jean’s awkward admission that Viv’s biker punk looks would make her “stick out like a sore thumb” in some situations reads like an admission that can never be fully integrated into her girlfriend’s life.
The scenes between McEwen and Hayes are played with sensuality, yearning tenderness and regret, particularly a late-in-the-action meeting in a café and a subsequent exchange at a house party. If an occasional element of the script seems just a little annoying — like Jean’s insomnia and the relaxation tape she needs to fall asleep, even after a bout of vigorous sex — the authenticity of the performances contrasts it more.
Some of the smaller observations are adorable, like Jean’s discomfort at Sasha’s refusal to remove her sister’s wedding photo, who looks like a different person with her long brown locks and gauzy gown; or her gasp when Sasha scolds her because it was confusing for her 5-year-old son Sammy (Dexter Heads) to find Viv in Jean’s apartment when he was left behind for an emergency babysitting. The drama expertly gauges how these incidents get in the way of Jean’s tranquility and are magnified by the political context.
Enhance the smooth modulations and rich moods of the film is a score by Roe that has an unusually broad tone, from delicate romantic notes to menacing strings and a more nervous agitation that almost suggests bass horror profile.
Oakley defies expectations by not building her catharsis around the news of Section 28 or even around a major epiphany for Jean. Instead, he arrives speechless, after a party at Sasha’s, where Jean surprises herself by being bluntly candid in response to a male guest’s invasive questions. The terrifying scene gives way to the test transmitted rigorously to Jean’s face who seems to have found a new determination and readiness to change.