God's Own Country *****
Starring: Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart
Director: Francis Lee
It’s been a while since the UK has produced a brilliant LGBT film. Since 2011, in fact, when Andrew Haigh’s dazzlingly subtle Weekend became a universally acclaimed sleeper hit. But the wait is over, because God’s Own Country, the feature debut from director Francis Lee, is here to take the baton in a film that is being called the “Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain”. And for good reason.
Johnny Saxby (O’Connor) is a sheep-farmer in rural Yorkshire, where he lives with his grandmother (Jones) and ailing father (Hart). In the wake of his father’s stroke, Johnny is being forced to take on more and more duties on the farm, even though he is barely in his twenties. With his duties toward both the farm and his family mounting, he turns more and more to drink, while engaging in illicit sexual encounters with young men in public toilets. But with the arrival of Gheorghe (Secareanu), a Romanian immigrant farm-labourer, to assist with the work during lambing season, Johnny is forced to face up to his behaviour as his relationship with this new-comer develops into something more.
Narratively, this film is nothing groundbreaking (its story about isolated farmers falling in love is of course the root for its Brokeback comparison), but its composition makes for something very special. Just like Haigh’s films, Francis Lee has a stripped-back approach, in which the stark realism leads to as much story being told through the way the camera captures a look over what is said. In fact, this is a film relatively sparse on dialogue, with the majority of its nodal moments coming from something learnt by the characters internally, but revealed to the audience through lingering close-ups and sweeping vistas across barren landscapes. In fact, the first sexual encounter between Johnny and Gheorghe happens at lightning speed without any pre-amble or build-up, but the camera has shown enough of their nuanced behaviour that it certainly doesn’t come as a surprise.
The romance between the two characters is grounded within the tangible chemistry between its leads. Alec Secareanu is doe-eyed but rugged; almost distractingly handsome. But where he plays Gheorghe as both grounded and strong, Josh O’Connor takes Johnny on journey that sees him ricocheting back and forth between personal growth and shooting himself directly in the foot. He gives a façade of being hard as nails; he is abrasive, offensive, racist. He refuses to show love or affection. But though some of this comes from his unaccepted sexuality, it also comes from the strained relationship with his family, who are stoic, stony and overwrought. As a result, we see a man yoyo-ing between youthful vigour as he begins to find himself and the steely misery he feels forced into with his family. And O’Connor is astonishing in this part.
Similar films often fall into the trap of passing stern judgement on the culture that is repressing its lead’s freedom. God’s Own Country is unusual in that it refrains from doing this, instead giving us a balanced view of both the need for individual freedom and adhering to familial duty. The farm is never portrayed as a bad thing. In fact, as Johnny becomes more and more at ease with himself, the more beauty he sees in the land and the more gravity he places in his work. This is not a film that says, like many do, that the countryside is a repressive and backward place. Instead, it finds beauty in the mud and driving rain, while small moments from Johnny’s family show there is heart behind their steely countenance. Johnny might be going down a different route than that they would have chosen for him, but their love for him peaks through in a few guarded, brief but heartfelt moments.
As debut films go, this comes from a confident director who has found his voice. It’s a story that shows the reality of being gay in the countryside in the twenty-first century, which is shown as an indelibly lonely place. Nor does it shy away from the depiction of sexuality itself as something as animal as the sheep they are tending. Lee shows real restraint in the way he has told and captured this story, strikingly lacking exposition, but without the temptation to rush itself. It is staid, solid and unsensational, allowing both the romance and Johnny’s self-discovery to take a compelling centre-stage. While many are saying this is a “film about Brexit”, in the way it depicts a migrant worker who has come to the UK from Europe, really this is just a contextual facet of the age in which it was made. Shot two months before the Brexit vote, this was then – as it is now – a film about two people from different places brought together and falling in love. As LGBT films go, this is the cream of the crop. And as British films go, this is undoubtedly one of the strongest of the year.
OUT NOW IN CINEMAS.