I enjoyed God’s Own Country for its realistic style and its unflinching vision of intimacy.
God’s Own Country, directed and written by Francis Lee. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Peg Aloi
British actor, writer, and director Francis Lee makes an impressive debut with this coming- of-age film. Set in Yorkshire, it’s the story of a young man who works on his family farm and chases off boredom by getting drunk and picking up other local young men for casual sex. Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is handsome but very standoffish, not wanting to share a pint or even exchange names with the young men he meets has intense and brief sexual encounters with. His family berates him for his late nights and drinking, as do his peers, including his schoolmate and friend Gloria (Melanie Kilburn), who wishes he’d date someone nice. The opening shot of Johnny vomiting after a long night of drinking suggests self-loathing and, indeed, this is a young man whose behavior seems driven by naked hungers. His workday is a brutish ordeal, his nights a long string of self-destructive binges.
Johnny works long hours on his father’s sheep farm, and when spring lambing time comes, the family hires a young Romanian immigrant to help out temporarily with the seasonal work. Johnny is hostile to Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) at first, and Johnny’s father (Ian Hart in a fine performance), embarrassed that his health problems necessitate a need for hired help, goes out of his way to make sure the immigrant understands this is a temporary position. Gheorghe seems desperate for the work, but does not want to reveal his dependence too readily. He is brooding but polite, hardworking and skilled with the animals and, compared to Johnny’s gruffness, he seems more mature and thoughtful. Gheorghe and Johnny camp out in the shieling (shepherd’s cottage) and help the sheep with their lambs. Gheorghe’s kind and gentle treatment of a runt lamb rejected by its mother surprises the pragmatic Johnny, who can’t understand why he bothers trying to save the animal. Gheorghe’s persistence pays off, and he dresses the rejected lamb in another lamb’s coat so the mother will accept it. It seems to be a metaphor, perhaps about the difference between the ways we show ourselves to the world versus who we truly are.
At its most successful, God’s Own Country engages the viewer at a visceral level, dramatizing just what it means to be a young gay man in a rural farming village in contemporary England. Johnny’s hunger for casual sex dovetails conveniently with his refusal to have any sort of emotional connection with the men he takes as lovers, usually only for one night. Thrown into an intimate, isolated, and starkly lonely situation for several weeks (why yes, the parallels with Brokeback Mountain are plentiful, and both films function as contemporary pastorals), the two finally succumb to a mutual attraction. Their sexual activity is rough and perfunctory…at first. Gheorghe, so nurturing with the sheep, is also a sensitive and giving lover. Despite Johnny’s resistance, he tries to wear down his lover’s façade of toughness and independence. Gheorghe’s kisses and caresses are frightening to Johnny, who has only asked for quick, anonymous intimacy. As their emotional connection deepens, Johnny’s surface anger and hostility slowly begin to shift; he opens himself up to Gheorghe’s tenderness and guidance.
I enjoyed this film for its realistic style and its unflinching vision of intimacy. The actors are all superb, thoroughly convincing; Lee’s direction is so finely-tuned it feels almost non-existent. God’s Own Country‘s sweeping shots of the Yorkshire countryside are stunning to behold — yet they are presented humbly, almost shyly. Lee, a seasoned actor, has confidently crafted a moving and memorable story about maturing. I have no doubt his future projects will showcase similar sensitivity, restraint, and depth.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” has recently been moved to a new domain: themediawitch.com.