God’s Own Country (2017)
Starring Josh O’Connor, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones and Alec Secareanu.
Directed by Francis Lee.
This film has been on my radar for quite some time – the reviews on Sky were great and it popped up a few times at the BAFTAS both in the film and acting categories. This was enough for me to give it a go and I’m happy I did.
On the surface, this film is a story about young farmer Johnny and his monotonous routine day to day in the Yorkshire countryside. To me, it was also a story of his hatred for this very life and the cards he had been dealt. The starkness of Johnny’s daily life is sketched quickly as he rattles through the basic functions he strings together to make a life: he throws up his beer from the night before, eats, grafts, sleeps around with no real connection, drinks and sleeps. He sweeps the floor, downs a shot, swallows meat without breathing, and has disconnected sex in the back of a cow trailer. His human interaction – casual sex aside – is limited to stilted chat with an old friend and barked orders and muttered disappointments from his disabled father (Ian Hart) and stern grandmother (Gemma Jones). It’s an existence, but no life. It’s a bleakness that newcomer Josh O’Connor powerfully articulates with slight dialogue and subtle physical cues. He’s a troubled soul and this radiates from his performance.
It took me by surprise to learn Johnny was gay. Director Francis Lee spends a fair amount of time in the beginning to set the scene, and give the audience insight into Johnny’s current daily routine and where his resentment has potentially developed. To then see him sleeping with men, for me it made sense to link this with his inner conflict but on reflection, I don’t think Johnny was battling with this at all. His interaction with others is confrontational, but the few moments of tenderness are found in nature, with his animals. Johnny’s shoulders drop as he strokes the sheep and cows, whispering softly in their ears. It becomes obvious; Johnny is able to be his true self in these fleeting moments.
It was here for me that I realised, Johnny needed rescuing from this life and his intolerance to it, despite not realising it for himself. Romanian Gheorghe (Secareanu) arrives, having been the only one to respond to the job ad. He comes to work on the farm for a week to help with the lambing season. Overnight, Gheorghe introduces warmth to Johnny’s world – he makes him taste and touch, breathe and feel, he kisses him softly and places daffodils on the dining table. When a runt is born, Gheorghe pulls mucus from its mouth, breathing it back to life while Johnny looks on, the scene utterly unusual and foreign. Johnny of course, previously always let the runts die. It wasn’t sexuality that Johnny needed to address; it was his resistance to accept affection and self-worth, and to believe anything could ever be different for him.
Gheorghe never gives up, and knocks down every wall Johnny has spent building. To compare this film to Brokeback Mountain would be entirely reductive and deny God’s Own Country the credit it deserves. This is a full-hearted gay love story – Johnny’s love story. What it isn’t, necessarily, is a film that explores the politics of gay relationships or the politics of oppression. The fight is not with the exterior world (the bigotry Gheorghe experiences is ignorant British xenophobia), but the interior world. And it’s in this clattering clash of Johnny’s old reality and the new one opening before him where O’Connor is truly exceptional – “I don’t want to be a fuck-up anymore,” he says, a simple sentiment that becomes utterly devastating and true. Johnny recognises the person he has become, and this could only have been possible with the love and affection shown to him by Gheorghe.
Ultimately, it’s about the transformative power of love. Not simply between Johnny and Gheorghe, but Johnny and his family. Johnny becomes warm and loving towards his father after deterioration in health and it is not the Johnny we saw at the beginning of the film. It’s a stunning debut from Francis Lee, who confidently eschews high drama in favour of delicately drawn shifts that quietly devastate the heart.
It’s a film with no stunts, twists or turns. It’s rather a story of love, escapism and freedom. It’s beautiful poetry, set in one of the most stunning places you’ll find in Great Britain.