Francis Lee’s brilliant portrayal of life on an English farm delivers a deeply-moving story, confronting the loneliness of responsibility, toxic masculinity and the bravery of falling in love. At once understated and highly compelling, it’s drawn frequent comparison with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, but this captivating love story deserves its own stage.
With a uniquely British narrative rooted firmly in the Yorkshire Dales, Lee’s directorial feature début provides an authentic look at agricultural England, addressing themes of isolation, immigration and prejudice with sensitivity. Brought to life by a small but impressive cast and filming that at times feels uncomfortably close-up, it is threaded with tensions that are both palpable and gripping.
Antihero Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is struggling with the new responsibility of running his family’s farm as his father’s health fades. While his friends have left for university, his own fate has been sealed, leaving him powerless and boiling with resentment. He escapes through binge drinking and emotionless gay sex with strangers, grafting through his hangovers with the bitter awareness that his family’s livelihood rests on his shoulders.
Living with his taciturn grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) and gruff father Martin (Ian Hart), who amplifies the claustrophobia by criticising Johnny’s work, his home life feels as frigid as the weather outside. Johnny’s roiling frustrations are captured superbly by O’Connor, and at first his guarded, flinty demeanour makes him a difficult character to warm to, but his caustic barbs and determination to push people away belies a vulnerability that Lee teases out artfully.
The arrival of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (a mesmeric Alec Secareanu) for lambing season initially brings out the worst in Johnny, who feels undermined. He tosses out derogatory slurs and does his best to prove Gheorghe isn’t needed. But slowly, an intimacy develops between them, and with Gheorghe’s gentle guidance Johnny starts to let his guard down. Against a desolate landscape and the drudgery of farm life, a tender love story unfurls – but it hangs in the balance of Johnny’s self-destructiveness.
Unlike its antecedent, God’s Own Country is less a story about same-sex relationships than vulnerability. “I wanted to do a film about how difficult it is to love and be loved,” Lee told The Scotsman – emphasising the central conflict that underscores the film’s different relationships. Johnny’s slow journey from isolation to romance is depicted movingly and enhanced with subtle symbolic echoes (it is while camping out together to repair a stone wall that Johnny’s own self-imposed walls begin to crumble). But perhaps the most poignant moment occurs in a silent coming-of-age scene as Johnny steps up to care for his invalided father, gently washing him with the tenderness denied from his own childhood. This stirringly baptismal act leaves hope for a new beginning.
Taking inspiration from Lee’s own experience growing up in Yorkshire, God’s Own Country was filmed near and at times on the farm where he was raised. To immerse O’Connor and Secareanu in their characters, he sent them off to experience farm life for two weeks, and their ensuing naturalness, combined with real (and graphic) scenes inspecting cows and birthing lambs, creates compelling authenticity. With Lee’s preference for visual storytelling over dialogue, much of the story is communicated in the space between words, and the landscape itself is a powerful presence. Cinematographer Joshua James captures Brontë country in all its brutal, oppressive beauty and laces scenes with masterful pathetic fallacy. Slowly, as Gheorghe’s positive influence spreads and the farm ceases to feel like a cage, the gloomy Yorkshire landscape is revealed for its raw, fertile magnificence.
Certainly, if Johnny is the complex antihero of this tale, Gheorghe is its quiet hero. Driven to find work abroad by the dearth of prospects at home, Gheorghe is an outsider of a different kind but equally familiar with isolation. In contrast to the luxury of Johnny’s angry outbursts, the stoic dignity with which Gheorghe endures his challenges creates a poignant reminder of his vulnerability as an immigrant – a plight that Secareanu conjures skilfully. Although Lee’s film steers clear of political commentary, he has spoken of tapping into the immigrant experience in the UK and described how the xenophobic abuse suffered by a Romanian friend influenced Gheorghe’s character.
Yet, despite these broader reflections, God’s Own Country remains at its heart a love story whose deceptive simplicity belies its lingering impact. Although it slipped somewhat under the mainstream radar, it’s received rich praise at film festivals around the world, including nominations for the BAFTA’s Outstanding British Film and Rising Star categories. A powerful directorial debut that’s resolutely deserving of its accolades, God’s Own Country is profound, unique – and unmissable.
God’s Own Country is showing at selected cinemas and is available online. For more details on cinema showtimes, visit the website.