Dramas about unspoken homosexual love often follow a familiar pattern at the cinema. The human triumph of God’s Own Country, the first film from British director Francis Lee, comes in showing how love is tough to express whatever the sexuality of the afflicted. Set amongst the windswept Yorkshire hills, it depicts two farm workers whose connection is so beautifully true that it far surpasses the conventions of similar structures. It is also a timely reminder of the contagion of decency, the value of values and that trait that parts of Brexit Britain have lost – kindness to outsiders.
Farmhand Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is a quiet young man, beset by troubles way beyond what someone his age should have. His rage is barely restrained in his snappy conversations with his father and grandmother, his dominant, wordless sex in the darkness of a van and most frequently, the destructive alcohol habit he uses to black it all out. Friends have flown far from the tired village where he drowns his sorrows; and when they return, this just piques his anger that family responsibilities stop him from leaving too. When Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to help with lambing season, he is just another target for Johnny’s ire; the insult ‘gypsy’ is spat lazily at the newcomer. Gheorghe, though, stands up to this abuse, and a confrontation between the two quickly leads to a connection, first physical and then emotional.
There are wider issues at play out on the chilly hills, but the easiest entry to Lee’s excellent debut is in the moments. A solitary light at a window amongst the gloom; a ravenous man saving biscuits for the hunger to come; the sparkle between the eyes of two lovers wearing motorcycle helmets. He combines a painter’s hand with a writer’s mind; that is to say he is capable of bringing a story to life through a succession of potent, true little moments. Several shots of lambs being born – some in great detail – would melt the iciest heart, and yet show the reality of farm life at the same time. More than any film, I was reminded of the great English novelists; we’re in prime Brontë Country near Keighley, West Yorkshire, and the interplay of human and nature recalls Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The duality of the Yorkshire locations, at once providing life and restricting it, are deeply reminiscent of Thomas Hardy. Josh is a blend of young Michael Henchard from The Mayor Of Casterbridge & Jude of Jude the Obscure; his mind somewhere else, but his feet stuck firmly in the mud. That Lee is able to marshal these totems of literature into a thoroughly moving and contemporary 104 minutes is indication of a blossoming talent.
The other obvious mirror is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, and while enough has been written on the superficial similarities, it is what the former has come to represent & what I hope for the latter that holds my attention most. For all the Academy’s error in giving Best Picture to the comparatively weak Crash that year, Brokeback Mountain has become representative of a change in attitudes regarding homosexuality. No, it didn’t bring about the end of homophobia; rather it pushed the gate a bit further open to an understanding of how much damage has been caused, and still is being, by regressive and often violent behaviour towards homosexuals.
God’s Own Country pushes it further, not just by showing the painful psychological effects of hidden sexuality; but by foregrounding a handsome young couple navigating the pitfalls of courtship. Their sexuality is a big part of who they are; it just isn’t defined by its difference from heteronormativity. O’Connor and Secareanu achieve a graceful chemistry, especially in their tender embraces; the kissing of a hand, a stroke, a hug. Both performances are sublime and exquisitely balanced. O’Connor begins Johnny as a gritty Northern brat, lashing out at anyone in his way. He then undergoes a transformation of the kind I can scarcely remember, as he learns a different way to engage with life; one of decency and goodwill. Gheorghe is his major trigger for this; with his attractive face & alluring knitwear, Secareanu displays extraordinary poise in playing a man with his own shadows. His immigrant status is all the more relevant in a post-referendum Britain; one of those powerful snippets is when he describes the desolation of his home country, where ‘you can’t throw a rock without hitting an old lady crying for her children’. He has come to Britain in search of not just money but hope; how cruel would a country be to reject such a traveller? Coming out of this film, what is perhaps most uplifting is how British it feels, not through a rejection of other nations but through its trust in goodness. This is the Britain I want to believe in.
No-one says too much in GOC, neither the nascent lovers nor Johnny’s struggling relatives (both played with a mixture of fragility and stoicism by Gemma Jones and Ian Hart). Therefore when they do, it means so much more, and by the end we’re hanging on their every word.
Supported ably by the BFI Film Fund, God’s Own Country is a true jewel of British filmmaking and deserves your time and your love. After a lengthy festival run from Sundance to Sydney and everywhere in-between, it reaches UK cinemas on September 1st – and the better it does, the more cinemas it will find!