As he was making award-winning shorts that screened at various festivals in Britain, up-and-coming director Francis Lee must have pondered what story his first feature film would tell. It’s very common for an artist to start digging in one’s past and Lee was thinking about what might have happened if he had stayed behind in Yorkshire where he grew up and become a farmer instead of leaving to study at drama school. The movie that came out of those thoughts is heartfelt – but makes us happy that he left Yorkshire for a different career.
We’re introduced to Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who lives in Yorkshire on a farm together with his dad, Martin (Ian Hart), and grandmother, Deidre Gemma Jones). Martin suffered a stroke some time ago and needs a lot of help managing the cattle and sheep. There are obvious signs that Johnny’s unhappy and feeling trapped, even if Martin and Deidre are in denial about it – his free time is spent on heavy binge-drinking and careless sexual encounters with male strangers.
One day, Martin hires a Romanian guest worker for the lambing season; suspicious at first, Johnny eventually lets Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) change his life…
Excellent portrait of gay love
This film premiered the same year as Call Me by Your Name, another excellent portrait of gay love. The settings couldn’t be more different. Call Me by Your Name had a lush Italian summer milieu. The characters had a lovely tan and, likely, scent. In God’s Own Country the characters also have a tan due to their hard work outdoors, but we know for sure that there’s no room for lovely scents or clean bodies among the sheep, mud and manure. And yet, both movies touchingly convey the power of love to us.
The romance seems to be against all odds at first, and I’m sure there are those among the unfortunates who voted for Brexit who will feel that this movie is a transparent attempt to persuade them that foreign guest workers are not evil. Perhaps there is some truth to that manipulation, but don’t guest workers, and Romanians in particular, deserve to be depicted in a positive light, at least once? The film is moving and credible, even if it takes a while to touch a nerve; so much in Johnny’s life is an uphill struggle, and the Yorkshire environs so harsh, that we’re in for a challenge. Ultimately, it’s hard to resist though, much thanks to the cast. O’Connor and Secareanu are relative newcomers on the international scene, the former known chiefly from television and the latter from Romanian films, but they’re both very good – especially O’Connor who manifests his character’s situation in a very convincing way, clearly carrying the burden of having given up on finding a new way to live his life.
In supporting roles, Hart and Jones are also excellent as people who have been toughened by their lives as farmers; even if there’s a lot of pride in what they do, they’re also chained to this livelihood and count on future generations to keep the farm going.
It’s refreshing to not see rampant homophobia in this tale; the homosexuality is never much of a big deal among these Yorkshiremen. There were the inevitable comparisons with Brokeback Mountain (2005), another gay romance set in a rural landscape, even if the context differs in several ways. Ang Lee’s film earned its emotional triumph to an even greater degree, partly in thanks to a more complex story, but God’s Own Country also works hard to make us wipe a tear from our eyes and wish Johnny and Gheorghe all the best.
God’s Own Country 2017-Britain. 104 min. Color. Produced by Manon Ardisson, Jack Tarling. Written and directed by Francis Lee. Music: A Winged Victory for the Sullen. Cast: Josh O’Connor (Johnny Saxby), Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe Ionescu), Ian Hart (Martin Saxby), Gemma Jones (Deidre Saxby).
Last word: “There was a debate [about sex]. I could have made a film that might have taken away some of the threat. Not threat, the … [he reaches for another word] the challenge that a wide audience might have. But I didn’t want to do that. You only get one opportunity to make your first film, and it’s the time that you can risk the most.” (Lee, The Guardian)