Born and raised in Yorkshire, Francis Lee – writer and director of God’s Own Country – knows a good field when he sees one. And boy, is his debut feature film filled with plenty of fields, sheep, and superb performances all round.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) has spent his life growing up on his father’s (Ian Hart) farm, helping out alongside his grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones). Perhaps considered a sheltered life, Johnny gets on with it – it’s all he’s ever known. As schoolfriends disappear off to university, he’s is left to find new ‘relationships’ – mainly just quick fumbles with other local farmhands.
Tending a farm alone is a lot of work, but when Johnny’s father hires in help in the form of Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), he’s not happy. This is his farm, he doesn’t need any help. But as the tension between the two men starts to build, Johnny might just change his mind about Gheorghe.
Set in the sweeping hills and valleys of the Dales, and with a storyline centered around two gay men, it’s not surprising that God’s Own Country has been compared to Ang Lee‘s 2005 Oscar-winning drama Brokeback Mountain – a Yorkshire Brokeback, of sorts – and with good reason. O’Connor as Johnny is a stroke of genius casting, as he plays unlikeably likeable so well. Within the first few minutes we see him rise from his hangover, throw up last night’s booze, and ignorantly shrug off comments from his grandmother, an air of rudeness lingering wherever Johnny goes. Even the first sex scene of the film, starring Johnny and an auction attendee in the back of a cattle van, is rough, cold – it’s Johnny all over. Secareanu’s Gheorghe brings a much needed warmth to the screen, counterbalancing the harsh edges of Johnny with this gentle, caring manner, best exemplified when he delivers a runt lamb, deciding to bottle feed it to recovery, while Johnny looks on, uninterested.
As the pair start to explore their relationship, we see that it’s Gheorghe’s sensitivity that helps to unveil a softer Johnny. Through their developing feelings for each other, we also see a different side to Johnny’s relationship with his father that, up until this point, had been masked by the stiff upper lip masculinity of two headstrong, stubborn characters. With a narrative focusing on the intertwining relationships of men, it’s refreshing to watch something so tender.
Lee’s eye for sweeping establishing shots, contrasted with extreme close-ups of the actors, creates a strong sense of intimacy and privacy, the Dales and its empty farmhouses a place for Johnny and Gheorghe to escape into. Beautifully directed, it’s the moments that are alluded to, that aren’t caught on camera, that hint at the blossoming love between the pair.
God’s Own Country is a stunning piece of British cinema. Starring two of the industry’s newest, brightest talents, you can’t miss this.