Movie Review – God’s Own Country
Directed by Francis Lee
Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, and Gemma Jones
It wouldn’t be accurate to call God’s Own Country a coming-of-age story; It’s lead character is college-age and appears well into his 20s. But the debut film of writer/director Francis Lee is as much about growing up as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name.
Johnathon Saxby, the film’s protagonist (Josh O’Connor), lives and works on a sheep farm in Yorkshire, England with his stroke-disabled father (Ian Hart) and his tireless grandmother (Gemma Jones). Isolated and constantly berated by his controlling father, Johnny dulls his pain with impersonal gay sex and nightly, vomit-laced bouts of drunken stupor. Realizing the lad can’t run the farm on his own, the family hires Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant farm worker from Romania, to help him during lambing season. Gheorghe is initially received coldly by the family, particularly the insecure Johnny, who taunts the Romanian with racial slurs.
Because the flock has moved to a different area, and because Johnny has neglected repairing a fence, he and Gheorghe must camp away from the farmhouse for a few days to tend to both. Once alone, the tension between the two men builds to a physical conflict. Later the tension erupts again, but this time in a wild power exchange of rough and muddy sex that, over the next day, evolves into something more tender. This awkward progression from hate-sex to meaningful human connection is beautifully staged by Lee, as he takes us from barely registered smiles, to shared sugar packets and cigarettes, and finally, to a mutual trade-off of gay slurs that’s not about hate, but the acknowledgement of identity and the expression of affection. Through Gheorghe, Johnny learns tenderness and an appreciation for the beauty of his surroundings. And through Johnny’s hunger for passion, Gheorghe recognizes and empathizes with the loneliness that’s the source of his bad behavior.
Just as Guadagnino did, director Lee approaches his love story with a thoughtful pace and an understated hand, keeping a low flame on the sweetness lest it thicken into syrup. There are no maudlin declarations of love in this film, no swelling musical score dramatically cued to bring about the tears. We know how Johnny and Gheorghe feel about each other from their actions and from the way they look at each other. We don’t need them to say it. Lee, like Guadagnino, meditates on natural surroundings, establishing setting as character and using nature as a visual metaphor. In Call Me by Your Name, the sensuously ubiquitous foliage visualizes the lusty summer bacchanal of Elio and Oliver’s youthful pleasure, while the overcast skies and gnarled landscapes of the harsh Yorkshire countryside in God’s Own Country, bring hard-working days, cold spring nights and the longing for the warmth of a loved one to mind.
Lee never forgets his protagonists’ relationship to this setting. Nor does he forget what they do for a living. Johnny and Gheorghe, unlike the over-educated Elio and Oliver, are mud-splattered farming blokes and they talk and act like it. The film mines the rich details of their occupation, with vivid, sometimes graphic, depictions of the realities of farm life. There are live births, greased arms inserted into orifices; and one particularly unpleasant scene depicting the flaying of a dead lamb, that will likely be difficult for other squeamish city-folk, such as myself, to watch. These scenes are utterly real and were reportedly performed by the cast members themselves. That’s easy enough to believe. The entire film has a grubby authenticity. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ mud-toned imagery informs both character and setting with its own kind of subtext. You can almost smell the stink of manure, the relentless stench of urine, and the cold musk of the outdoors infused in the two men’s clothing. It’s not hard to imagine two lonely souls coming together in this kind of hard environment.
Despite its careful pace, the film doesn’t meander, maintaining the focus on the development of its lead character throughout. Few things are more satisfying in a dramatic work than seeing a character grow before our eyes. And Johnny’s slow journey from train wreck to mature adult is immensely satisfying. While the film is certainly romantic, and its dramatic climax is not dissimilar to scenes we’ve seen in countless hokey Hollywood romances, the film avoids melodrama because the feelings it seeks to evoke are justified by appropriate character development. Lee takes great care to ensure that we’re fully invested in these people so that the stirring emotions of the film’s finale are well-earned.
That we are indeed fully invested in all four of these people is due, in no small part, to the gravitas of its superb leads. Hart and Jones wear the burdens of their characters with heartbreaking sincerity. They come off like real folk, not character actors. And Secareanu, with his brooding brow and intense stare, is quietly hypnotic and intoxicatingly sexy. You can see Gheorghe’s confidence in his posture and his gentle nature in the delicate ways he touches Johnny’s body. But O’Connor, as Johnny, is the film’s gravitational core. Whether he’s the drunken loser refusing to take responsibility for his admittedly difficult life or the sensually awakened lover who doesn’t want to be a “fuck up” anymore, he’s thoroughly sympathetic and entirely gripping.
None of which is to say the film is flawless. It’s not without a minor contrivance and the occasional stiff moment. There’s a plot twist involving Gheorghe that, if one thinks too much about it, seems like a bit of a Deus Ex Machina intended solely to push the drama forward (the issue is never mentioned again). And some of the shots of the two men together seem posed and unnatural, revealing just enough of the actor’s bodies to be titillating as if, they’re sitting for a portrait. And there’s a slight lack of fluidity in the editing of the film’s climax that subtly distracts from O’Connor’s performance. This could simply be a matter of the film’s miniscule budget (a paltry £1 million or $1.4 million) or it may have simply been a style choice. Regardless, the impact of these moments on the overall film is negligible because Lee’s script is well thought out and his direction overall, assured and focused.
One of the things I found most refreshing about the film is the distinctly European way it handles the issue of Johnny and Gheorghe’s sexuality. Which is to say it’s no issue at all. There are no scenes of shame, no over-dramatized confrontations with agonized parents or hate-filled homophobes, no big soliloquies about being who you are. God’s Own Country, is not about shame or fear, save the fear of losing your heart’s desire. And it’s certainly not about being gay. It’s about the redemptive power of love, its ability to transform the self-centered into fuller, more compassionate human beings, and one man’s personal journey in finding that redemption. These are universal themes. Ones that all audiences should be able to understand. Yet sadly, the film’s stateside acclaim has so far been limited to film festivals, art-house audiences, critics, and gay men searching for movies that depict their own truths. It deserves to be seen by a wider American audience.
Last Sunday’s Oscar telecast featured a wonderful documentary segment about diversity in film, featuring interviews with Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, and Pakistani actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani, nominated for his screenplay for The Big Sick. In it, Nanjiani tells of how, as a youth, he enjoyed, and related to, many films about white protagonists, proclaiming that the time has now come for white people to relate to films about those who are different from themselves. “It’s not hard,” Nanjiani exclaims, “I’ve been doing it all my life.” As tolerance has increased, high quality films about gay people have moved from the former novelty of their subject matter to telling day-to-day stories about people who happen to be gay. The beautiful normalcy of this is one of the things that makes this mature and lovely little film so memorable and in its own way, groundbreaking. All that’s left now is for straight audiences to discover this and other films by and about LGBT individuals, experience the beautiful stories these films have to tell, and allow themselves to relate to characters with sexual identities different from their own. It’s not hard. LGBT people everywhere, including myself, have been doing it all our lives.