God’s Own Country

Published on September 5th, 2017

God’s Own Country

Directed by Francis Lee

Starring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones

Reviewed by Michael Dalton

Rating: ★★★★☆

With God’s Own Country, an unflinching, intense love story set on a farm in Yorkshire, Francis Lee has made the most exciting debut of 2017. It draws on the wayward love stories of cinema past but Lee gives it new rhythms, its own charms. It’s rough and tumble but slowly, in this story of a reckless young sheep farmer who grabs anonymous sexual encounters amidst drunken binges and then finds real love, Lee lets the veil drop. It’s a gritty, realistic piece of work with dirt, dying animals, and icy weather forming the backdrop but there’s a striking truth at the centre.

 

Under the stormy skies of this farm, Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), who lives with his ailing father (Ian Hart) and grandmother (Gemma Jones), works his way through days of hard labour, repairing the rickety property, delivering calves, and tending to the cattle while his nights are drenched in alcohol. He’s a tough lad who feels little, and seems in denial about his proclivities. In his aggressive one-night stands, he’s a cold lover, using boys for his own needs and refusing them kisses. Then a handsome migrant worker from Romania, Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), arrives on the farm to help during lambing season. Johnny is irked by his presence and initially antagonistic but slowly mutual respect develops (not before he makes it clear to Johnny how much he resents being called a “gypo”), and passion soon emerges.

 

Their first sexual encounter takes place in the mud and Lee doesn’t flinch in capturing every brutal second.  It’s a remarkable scene, urgent and sensual. You can almost feel the ground shift as Johnny approaches the sex in his usual rough, dominant way but Gheorghe resists his force, and draws out Johnny’s tenderness and teaches him how to make love. He handles the newborn lambs the way he handles Johnny. Consider the scene where he skins a stillborn lamb and gives the pelt to another newborn.

 

Rich in irony, this is a beautiful film (shot at Lee’s father’s farm, Joshua James Richards’ cinematography is invigorating). It recalls the golden era romances where a furtive glance or an affectionate touch spoke volumes. Watching Johnny’s reserves slowly break down as he surrenders to the passion he’s found is a thing of beauty. From gruff and uncaring to passionate and sensitive, O’Connor delivers an instinctive performance and Secareanu matches him in his authentic portrayal. They play off each other with sensitivity. Comparisons to Brokeback Mountain are inevitable of course. As with Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, Johnny and Gheorghe are tending sheep and surrendering to unexpected love in the wild but Lee shifts away from the rocky road the cowboys travelled and allows us a different kind of closure.

 

God’s Own Country works primarily because Lee’s feel for the usually controversial material is so matter-of-fact. The gay aspect is irrelevant. There’s no hint of homophobia here. This is the love story of the year, and you won’t leave unmoved.