Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country finds its soul in the rugged English countryside, bleak and affecting. Getting raves on the indie circuit, it’s a stark romance about a young farmer discovering his sexuality. But is it Brokeback UK, or is there more to it?
The first time I heard someone refer to the English north as God’s Own Country was on a train out of Liverpool, chatting with an English soldier. I couldn’t wait to escape the bleak thuggishness of the city, headed to Edinburgh after playing a music festival. His love of the place was undeniable, thick as his Liverpudlian lilt. To each their own. There’s no accounting for where we place our affections.
Set in the Yorkshire moors, God’s Own Country follows Johnny (Josh O’Connor) as he struggles to keep the family farm going. His father’s sick, his mother’s taking care of him, and Johnny does his best to deaden himself to the dreary farming routine. Heavy drinking is followed by steely grey hangovers, and the occasional kick of anonymous sex. Johnny’s gay, not that he acknowledges it beyond the immediacy of his urges. Hooking up with a pretty blond fellow at an auction, he says nothing during their encounter. When the blond asks if they might meet up again some time, he gets a harsh “no.” And then it’s back to the barfing, the cows and the sheep.
Things change with the arrival of an immigrant farmhand. Johnny’s been slacking on farm repairs, so his dad hires a worker for a week to pick up some of the slack. Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is Romanian, far afield after the failure of his own family’s farm. Johnny opts for irritating over ingratiating, asking the swarthy stranger if he’s a “Paki” before labeling him a gypsy. Gheorghe firmly says “don’t call me that” but the game is on, Johnny sniping blindly here and there, even as he steals long glances at Gheorghe’s handsome figure.
The classic tension of dislike turning to attraction follows, as the two set out overnight to repair some broken fences and walls. Open fighting leads to passionate wrestling in the cold mud, utterly unsurprising but candidly frank. Lee’s camera hangs back, lending the scene both documentary distance and an almost elemental force. The real question is how Johnny will handle his unwieldy discovery that he can actually feel.
Lee’s direction is stark and assured, with Joshua James Richards’s cinematography capturing the landscape’s harsh but infrequent beauty and the subtle play of emotions in looming close-ups. The performances are first-rate, with Josh O’Connor especially good as Johnny’s muddled stagnancy gives way to passion, recklessness, and eventually hope.
God’s Own Country isn’t as slickly accomplished as Brokeback Mountain, and it comes at a very different time in the zeitgeist. Lee’s film has the raw honesty of a lot of great British work, and it’s a solidly moving first film. It’s more explicit, both in its treatment of sex and its portrayal of farm work (after which I can definitively say, I could never work on a farm!). Whether it’s discovering sexuality, or building a much subtler subtext about immigrants, God’s Own Country is about acceptance. Whoever people are, wherever they might be, that’s a story to take to heart.