In God’s Own Country, writer/director Francis Lee imagines a world where young people take control of their future by living out the sincerest forms of themselves, creating a narrative that at long last restores faith in love.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is a young Yorkshire lad burdened by the responsibility of running his family’s farm to support himself, his disapproving grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) and ailing father Martin (an unrecognisable Ian Hart). Resentful over the limitations imposed on him, Johnny numbs himself by binge-drinking nightly. The film opens to the sound of Johnny spitting, retching and puking the beer from the night before, perfectly summarising his life: he gets up at dawn, toils all day, drinks at the local at night, and passes out at home only to wake up, puke, and set off to work again. When Romanian farmhand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is brought on to assist with lambing season, Johnny is slowly induced to love.
Johnny isn’t the typical young man struggling to come to terms with his sexuality and God’s Own Country isn’t typical queer cinema exploring homophobia and its impact. In fact, it is a largely apolitical film, implying that not only Johnny, but everyone around him is aware of his sexuality, though to what extend they approve is never acknowledged. He has anonymous hookups with other men, exemplified in the film through a young auctioneer inside a horse trailer at a livestock market. The encounter is all spit and shove, with Johnny almost forcing himself to an orgasm – all struggle, little pleasure derived from the experience. He refuses the auctioneer’s advances to kiss him, later rejecting all further possible contact: “No we.”
Johnny responds to Gheorghe’s arrival with similar hostility and later, when taking him to the caravan arranged for his stay, even racism. Once Gheorghe is established as a more experienced farmhand, the tension between them escalates further. The pair camp out at an old building close to the barn and it is here, cut off from contact with the rest of the world, that the sexual attraction boiling in the background combusts in their first sex scene, one more physically realistic and frank than anything witnessed in films of the genre. They engage in a fight in the mud as Johnny attempts to establish his dominance much like he did with the auctioneer, before Gheorghe stops him in his tracks, setting his journey from physical aggression to emotional vulnerability, from the experience of sex to the experience of love, into motion.
When they return home, Johnny is far from the angry young man who wrestled him in the mud in a frantic moment of lust, unwilling to go beyond fucking. He leaps onto Gheorghe as soon as his grandmother has left the room to softly kiss him on the neck and invites him to spend the night in the house. Gheorghe might be the one that has moved to a foreign country, but it is Johnny who enters foreign territory. It’s difficult not to look at a scene of Gheorghe bringing a baby lamb back to life, and later fashioning a coat for it out of a dead lamb’s pelt, as metaphors for the romance developing between him and Johnny.
Lee’s debut is a refreshing take on the coming of age genre, following Johnny’s emotional maturity, rather than sexual awakening, with the most arresting visuals delivered through scenes of domesticity: Johnny’s visible nervousness as he spends the first night back at the caravan; the young lovers smoking cigarettes and drinking beer while taking a bath together, or sitting in bed naked with Johnny asking how to pronounce different things in Romanian. A scene revolved around the salting of pasta, complete with beers and daffodils, becomes the film’s highlight. There is genuine emotional truthfulness to these scenes, shot with sincerity of intent and a permeating sense of finality. Gheorghe becomes the agent of change, teaching Johnny how to touch, taste, smell, listen, and see, but it is his departure that forces Johnny to confront his fear of connection and cease his incessant self-annihilation.
Caught between the responsibility of ensuring his farm’s survival and the desire to pursue his personal happiness, Johnny reconciles the two by coming to terms with his feelings, announcing to his father that he will have to do it all in his own way, before setting off to reconnect with Gheorghe and and ask him to return to the farm, providing much needed relief to the viewer. “I don’t want to be a fuck-up anymore,” he confesses when they meet again, though this is a film, where what’s said is of little importance, whereas what is implied is powerful.
God’s Own Country is a far more introspective work than most of its predecessors, focusing on Johnny’s conflict, his trajectory through the transformative power of falling in love. Lee’s script is sparse, but unforgiving, raw and honest, edited down to its core essence, with Chris Wyatt’s editing directing the viewer’s attention on physicality – the touch of a hand, the glance of an eye, the posture of sitting while naked from the waist down – to expose unexpressed emotion, continuously invoking an earlier point in the film, imbuing it with greater significance than thought of at first. Following their first sexual encounter, Johnny motions Gheorghe to share his dinner, while previously he seemed to not give it a second thought. “Freak. Faggot. Fuck you faggot,” gains new weight when it resurfaces towards the end.
Joshua James Richards’ camera captures sex scenes refreshingly unpornographic that feel instinctive and almost unchoreographed, revealing much about both characters, while leaving a lot to the imagination. Lee keeps the camera tight on both of his leads to focus on expression and touch – faces, hands, bodies, even the gentle fondling of two fingertips are all captured with dramatic effect. The harshness of physical labour is never prettified, with the two leads authentic in a farm setting, whether handling animals giving birth or repairing a disintegrating stone wall, while surviving on pot noodles and showering with wet wipes. The chosen camera angles and the frequent use of close ups create a connection between characters and audience that remains unbroken throughout the film, leaving the viewer feeling involved in the intimacy between the two young men.
O’Connor, who could not look more anguished, displays remarkable restraint and sustains Johnny’s escalating urgency as the film progresses, delivering a riveting performance, while Secareanu’s deliberate quietness brings to life a character that could have easily slipped into manic pixie dream boy territory. God’s Own Country triumphs in invoking the importance of emotional maturity and the need to confront one’s feelings in the viewer. A beautifully lit scene of Johnny sitting in his room in his underwear and missing Gheorghe, holding his sweater and wearing it himself, even putting his thumb through a hole in the sleeve, much like Gheorghe used to, still haunts a month after the film’s release. God’s Own Country has forced its audience, much like Johnny, into a self-imposed openness to the possibility of love.
Reviewed at Picturehouse Central, London, September 3, 2017. Directed, written by Francis Lee. Cinematography by Joshua James Richards. Editing by Chris Wyatt. Running time: 105 minutes. With Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart.