God’s Own Country, 2017.
Directed by Francis Lee.
Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones and Ian Hart.
In the Yorkshire Dales, Johnny Saxby finds himself entirely responsible for running the family farm after his father has a stroke. His only escapes from the relentless pressures of work are binge drinking at his local and casual sex. A Romanian migrant comes to help out during the lambing season and a romantic relationship develops between the two.
Comparisons were inevitable. A gay romance and a story of self-discovery in a rural setting. God’s Own Country was always going to be likened to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain – Eeee-By-Brokeback, given its Yorkshire setting? – and, yes, there are similarities on the surface. But emphasising them does both films a disservice.
The setting is the beautiful but harsh Yorkshire Dales, where Johnny (Josh O’Connor) does all the work on the family farm. His father (Ian Hart) still takes more than an active interest, but a stroke means any physical work is out of the question. Resentment between father and son constantly simmers away in the background, while Johnny’s only consolation is drinking himself to a stupor at the village local and indulging in casual sex. Usually in the gents.
Romanian worker, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), arrives to help out during lambing lightens the workload. And, although the two don’t get on initially, a couple of days out on the doors tending the sheep marks the start of a closer relationship and Johnny facing up to the truth about himself. Until then, he’s kept his sexuality secret from his Nan (Gemma Jones) and dad, although his friends in the village are all too aware of it.
His relationship with Gheorghe is Johnny’s first experience of sex with love attached to it. He couldn’t give a monkey’s about the local blonde boy who he meets in the toilets, somebody who clearly wants something more, and his relationship with Gheorghe starts off as being something purely physical. But the balance shifts, with the Romanian showing him tenderness, genuine caring and eventually it turns into more of an equal relationship. While Johnny struggles with understanding and expressing his emotions, Gheorghe is more open and comfortable in his own skin, but also takes values like honesty and fidelity very seriously.
The relationship is grounded by its setting and the sequences involving hands-on farming are so authentic, you can almost smell it. Johnny examines a pregnant cow, complete with lubricant and long rubber gloves. Gheorghe saves an orphaned lamb by covering it with the fleece of a dead one so that the ewe will accept it. And director Frances Lee doesn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of livestock farming, showing what happens when things go wrong.
This is a remarkably assured debut from Lee. His script is sparse on words: every single one of them counts and the actors have plenty of scope to develop their characters. Watch the scene when Johnny’s Nan is ironing the father’s pyjamas, just after discovering that the two young men are lovers. For a brief moment, she sobs into the fabric: it’s an emotional release that’s been a long time coming. Hers isn’t the only powerful piece of acting: O’Connor and Secareanu are simply outstanding as the two lovers.
The connection between the people and their landscape never goes away – the rolling hills, the biting cold, the harsh sunshine and the uncompromising beauty – and the jobs that go with it, like dry stone walling and tending the animals. It’s an inherent part of everybody’s lives in this community and it all makes for a film, and a love story, that’s build on solid ground.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★