God's Own Country Review
Set under the murky, overcast skies of the Yorkshire Dales, God's Own Country tells the story of repressed emotions and sexuality on a remote British farm. Francis Lee's film follows in the footsteps of The Levelling, released earlier this year, which also offered a rare cinematic look at life on a working farm amidst a family crisis. The lazy comparisons with Brokeback Mountain are no doubt inescapable given the gay love story that sits at the heart of the film, but tender direction from Lee allows his debut to blossom into something far more than just being a rehashed version of Ang Lee's Oscar winner.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a farmhand working on his family’s land, a young man in his early twenties burdened with the expectation of keeping the farm alive after his father, Martin (Ian Hart), was incapacitated by a stroke. His grandmother, Deidre (Gemma Jones), fusses round their small farmhouse keeping the domestic chores in check and their daily grind doesn't allow for the discussion of feelings or emotions. Everyone is “just getting on with it,” as best they can. Martin is concerned only with the duties in and around the farm and Johnny can never do enough to meet his father’s high expectations.
Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives on the farm from Romania to help prepare the sheep for the mating season. The last thing Johnny wants is for his routine to be disturbed by a foreign newcomer and he goes out of his way to make him feel unwelcome. Johnny’s guilt about his sexuality is buried under regular drinking sessions at the local, trying to forget his quick, meaningless sexual encounters with other local young men inside cattle trailers and pub bathrooms. Both Lee’s insightful visual storytelling and O’Connor’s nuanced performance give life to a character who doesn’t speak much but reveals himself through brief glances and small bodily movements.
The power dynamic between the two men soon changes once Gheorghe tires of Johnny’s ignorant name calling. He’s a man with more experience across the board and after their first, raw night of sex up on the moors, he opens Johnny up to a more tender way of expressing himself, both sexually and emotionally. This unexpected relationship between the two men develops in the most natural way, revealed not only through their shared intimacy but in the rugged beauty of the land that surrounds them at all times.
Similar to O’Connors performance, Secareanu is able to express his himself through dialogue that cuts straight to the chase and doesn’t waste time getting to its point. There is a warmth and security in Gheorghe’s eyes that act as a counterpoint to the immaturity of Johnny’s shallow posturing. Being called a gypsy isn’t the only abuse he suffers in the town as a migrant worker, with Lee’s script now finding a greater resonance in a post-Brexit world. As a Yorkshireman himself, Lee's writing is clever enough to avoid playing up predictable regional stereotypes, and the final act throws up one or two heart-warming surprises.
God’s Own Country is journey into manhood through the acceptance of emotional and sexual growth and familial responsibility. There is a real authenticity to the agricultural way of life shown onscreen, whether Johnny or Gheorghe are simply fixing field fences and stone walls, or caring for the lamb and cow stock. Lee himself was born and raised on a farm and his attention to the finer details shine through in his treatment of the animals they tend to as much as the core human relationships. It's an excellent debut from a writer/director whose film finds an inspiring romance in God's own back garden.