When “God’s Own Country,” the excellent new movie by the openly gay English filmmaker Francis Lee, opens, Johnny Saxby (the outstanding Josh O’Connor) spends his nights drinking and picking up strange men at the local pub and spends his mornings puking his guts out.
It’s all too easy to understand why. He spends his days working on the desolate family farm in the harsh hills of Yorkshire. His father Martin (Ian Hurt) has limited mobility after a stroke, but still has the time and energy to belittle his son and boss him around. His grandmother Deirdre (the stony Gemma Jones, whose face is as weathered as the cruel countryside) isn’t much warmer.
Things start to change when Gheorghe Ionescu (Alex Secareanu) enters the scene. He’s a migrant worker from Romania that the family has reluctantly hired to help them out for a few months during lambing season. When Johnny and Gheorghe go to the high pastures to tend the flock, they begin to develop feelings for each other.
Their first sexual encounter, like Johnny’s other pickups, is brief and brutal, little more than a wrestling match with orgasms at the end. But their feelings begin to change and deepen as they work together and develop a deep mutual respect for each other. Gheorghe awakens a tender passion in Johnny and the two men begin to plan a life together.
The storyline and landscape may bring to mind Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” but while the two films may share some cinematic DNA, “God’s Own Country” is a very different movie. In “Brokeback Mountain,” Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar can only dream of a life together. Facing poverty, internalized homophobia and extreme social prejudice, they both marry women and can only be together during “fishing trips.”
In “God’s Own Country,” set in a very different time and place, the challenges faced by Johnny and Gheorghe have more to do with Johnny’s fear of intimacy than with societal disapproval. In fact, his old schoolmate Robyn (a delightfully quirky Patsy Ferran) acknowledges his sexuality when she offers to introduce him to a gay friend from college.
Johnny’s problem is that he has shut down emotionally, a reasonable response to the harsh conditions of his life. When Gheorghe finally breaks through Johnny’s reserve and coaxes a smile out of him, the screen lights up.
As both writer and director, Frances Lee creates complex characters and situations with impressive efficiency. Given the taciturn nature of the characters, the dialogue is sparse, but every word pays off. Sometimes the thick accents can he hard to understand, but the intention is always clear. The script is richly nuanced and deeply moving, leavened with rare but joyous moments of love and laughter.
Even though “God’s Own Country” is Lee’s first feature-length film, his directoral work is masterful. The pacing is steady and assured and the momentum never falters. Each shot is beautifully composed, but never draws attention to itself.
With an able assist from director of photography Joshua James Richard, Lee achieves a minor miracle. As spring returns to the moors, and as Johnny’s heart begins to thaw, color and life return to the unforgiving landscape. There can be great beauty in the countryside where Lee was born, and his love of the land infuses every frame. The work is still hard and filthy, but life on the moors has its rewards.
Lee also draws great performances from his talented cast. He made O’Connor and Secareanu train on the farm where the movie was filmed, and their hard work makes scenes of delivering lambs and tending the land look entirely believable. The two have an easy chemistry and offer richly textured performances. As Johnny’s gruff family, Jones and Hart avoid caricature and deliver flinty but well-rounded characters.
Lee is equally adept at working with the animals who play such an important role in the film. While the baby lamb that Gheorghu saves is adorable and brings some much-needed levity to the proceedings, its presence is balanced by the sickly calf that Martin forces Johnny to shoot and the dead lamb that Gheorghu skins.
“God’s Own Country” is a bracing and beautiful film. It is forthright and sensitive in its depiction of gay sexuality and refreshing in its focus on the fear of intimacy rather than homophobia (whether external or internalized). Lee writes and directs with confidence and grace and creates a rich portrait of the Yorkshire moors and the tough people who live there. It’s a must-see film and deserves to be a contender during awards season.