Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - TERRI WHITE

DI­REC­TOR Fran­cis Lee

CAST Josh O’con­nor, Alec Se­care­anu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart

PLOT Johnny (O’con­nor), the twen­tysome­thing son of an ail­ing sheep farmer (Hart), doesn’t ex­pect much from his life in ru­ral York­shire be­yond sev­eral pints and an anonymous bunk-up. But his per­func­tory ex­is­tence is turned up­side-down when Ro­ma­nian farm­hand Ghe­o­rghe (Se­care­anu) ar­rives for lamb­ing sea­son.

IN HIS POEM Moors, Ted Hughes de­scribes that par­tic­u­lar part of the York­shire land­scape as “a stage for the per­for­mance of heaven”. It is this York­shire, brutal and beau­ti­ful, that Fran­cis Lee con­jures for his de­but, God’s Own Coun­try.

The film opens on the moors be­fore dawn: an iso­lated house, si­lence, then the sound of retch­ing and spit­ting as farmer’s son Johnny (O’con­nor) vom­its up beer from the night be­fore.

The stark­ness of Johnny’s daily life is sketched quickly as he rat­tles through the ba­sic func­tions he strings to­gether to make a life: he pukes, eats, pisses, grafts, screws, drinks, sleeps. He sweeps the floor, downs a shot, swal­lows meat with­out breath­ing, has word­less sex in the back of a trailer. His hu­man in­ter­ac­tion — ca­sual shag­ging aside — is lim­ited to stilted chat with an old friend and barked or­ders and mut­tered dis­ap­point­ments from his dis­abled fa­ther (Hart) and stern grand­mother (Jones). It’s an ex­is­tence, barely. And a bleak­ness that O’con­nor pow­er­fully ar­tic­u­lates with slight di­a­logue and sub­tle phys­i­cal cues.

The few mo­ments of ten­der­ness are found in na­ture, with his an­i­mals — Johnny’s shoul­ders sag as he strokes their flanks, whis­pers softly in their ears. Hughes once wrote he “made the as­so­ci­a­tion, some­how, be­tween the world of an­i­mals and the ‘real thing’ in hu­man be­ings”, and Lee ru­mi­nates on this ab­sence of ego, with Johnny able to be his true self in these fleet­ing mo­ments.

Johnny’s res­cue, though he doesn’t know he needs it, is in the form of Ro­ma­nian Ghe­o­rghe (Alec Se­care­anu), who comes to work on the farm for a week. Overnight, Ghe­o­rghe in­tro­duces warmth to Johnny’s world (and those around him). He makes him taste and touch, breathe and feel. He kisses him softly. He places daf­fodils on the din­ing ta­ble. When a runt is born, Ghe­o­rghe pulls mu­cus from its mouth, breath­ing it back to life while Johnny looks on, the scene ut­terly for­eign.

To com­pare this film to Broke­back Moun­tain is to be en­tirely re­duc­tive and deny God’s Own Coun­try the credit it so de­serves. This is a full-throated, full-hearted gay love story. What it isn’t, nec­es­sar­ily, is a film that ex­plores the pol­i­tics of gay re­la­tion­ships or the pol­i­tics of op­pres­sion. The fight is not with the ex­te­rior world (the big­otry on dis­play is ac­tu­ally Brexit-bri­tain xeno­pho­bia), but the in­te­rior world. And it’s in this clat­ter­ing clash of Johnny’s old re­al­ity and the new one open­ing be­fore him where O’con­nor is truly ex­cep­tional. “I don’t want to be a fuck-up any­more,” he says, a sim­ple sen­ti­ment that be­comes ut­terly dev­as­tat­ing in his mouth.

Ul­ti­mately, it’s about the trans­for­ma­tive power of love. Not sim­ply be­tween Johnny and Ghe­o­rghe, but Johnny and his fam­ily.

It’s a stun­ning de­but from Lee, who con­fi­dently es­chews high drama and seis­mic change writ large in favour of del­i­cately drawn shifts that care­fully, qui­etly dev­as­tate the heart.

VER­DICT A dig into the na­ture of hu­man­ity from a di­rec­tor al­ready flu­ent in the lan­guage of bru­tal­ity and ten­der­ness. A stun­ning love story that in its finest mo­ments is pure po­etry.

Less is moor: farmer’s son Johnny (Josh O’con­nor) meets Ghe­o­rghe (Alec Se­care­anu).

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