God’s Own Country
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, drama, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles
It can come as no surprise to anyone who loves movies that tastes differ wildly, and one person’s gem is another’s lump of coal. That principle holds true in all the arts, and in most of human experience. So you may or may not like Francis Lee’s prize-winning debut film,
God’s Own Country, a gay love story set in the wild heaths of the north of England. It owes a clear debt to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (the directors even share a last name), but its lyricism is of a decidedly different hue.
Lee lets us know what we’re in for with his opening shot, which finds a man on all fours vomiting into a toilet. He’s Johnny Saxby ( Josh O’Connor), a young, lonely farmer in the bleak, hardscrabble landscape of Yorkshire. In short order he will go out to the barn, don a rubber glove, and insert his arm up the hindquarters of a cow, and then head to the local pub for a few pints and some rough backseat sex with an anonymous pickup.
The family farm is Johnny’s life, and his prison. He’s the only ablebodied hand on the place, where he lives with his grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) and his stroke-shattered father Martin (Ian Hart). He performs his duties grudgingly, and not always responsibly.
Things change, as they so often do, with the arrival of a dark, handsome stranger. Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian itinerant worker, signs on as help for the lambing season. At first things are prickly between the two young men — Johnny refers to the newcomer as a Gypsy, and earns a sharp rebuke — but it soon becomes clear that Gheorghe knows his way around sheep, and under his capable, caring hands we see a couple of remarkable scenes of birthing and its aftermath.
What is coming with the inevitability of winds across the moor is a sexual encounter between the two sheepherders. Like the lovers in Brokeback Mountain, their breakthrough comes when they camp out in the far pastures to tend to the ewes. Their sexual relationship starts rough and muddy, turns tender and brooding, and then gets complicated. A lot of what this story is about is the power of love to effect change, and the change in Johnny is profound.
The movie gradually takes on an unexpected beauty, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ camera discovering a Wuthering Heights romanticism in the raw terrain. Like the proverbial flower pushing up through pavement, Lee finds budding tenderness in the most unlikely of places. — Jonathan Richards
Northern exposure: Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu