Edinburgh International Film Festival gets its best opening film in years with God's Own Country, an emotionally rich story of romance blossoming between a gruff Yorkshire farmer and a handsome Romanian migrant worker. Director Francis Lee tells us more
When God's Own Country, the first film from actor-turned-director Francis Lee, premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year, it was quickly labeled ‘a British Brokeback Mountain,’ in reference to Ang Lee’s celebrated 2005 Oscar winner. It’s a glib comparison, but it’s easy to see why it’s been made. Both films concern two sheep farmers tentatively falling in love on a hillside; both make expressive use of their landscape (the earlier film is set in the rugged Wyoming mountains, the latter in wind-lashed North Yorkshire); and both are directed by men with the surname Lee. It’s an intimidating comparison to shoulder for a debut film, but God's Own Country, a deeply cinematic study of loneliness and repression that thrillingly blossoms into a tender and sexy love story, more than holds its own.
“The comparison to Brokeback is not one that I’ve ever shied away from,” says Lee, who’s speaking to us from his home near Haworth, Yorkshire, just a few miles down the road from where God's Own Country was shot. Despite the superficial similarities, Lee sees his film in very different terms from the earlier one made by his namesake. “I think it’s an incredible film, and beautiful, but very much set in a particular time and place.” In Brokeback Mountain, which is set in 1963, its two characters can’t have a relationship because of the social mores of the time.
By contrast, God's Own Country’s main character, Johnny (Josh O’Connor), is in no doubt about his sexual preferences – we see that early on when he picks up a trainee auctioneer at the local cattle market for some no-frills sex in his trailer – it’s expressing emotions with which he has issues. When that young auctioneer suggests they go out for a pint some time, the look of bewilderment Johnny gives him is the equivalent of that old Yorkshire idiom: “Don't talk daft, lad.”
“I knew I never wanted to tell a story about sexuality or coming out, in [the Brokeback Mountain] sense,” says Lee. “I wanted the biggest hurdle that this character of Johnny would go through to be this idea of falling in love, because that’s the hardest thing ever.”
In what sense? “I’m fascinated by how vulnerable and open you have to make yourself when you form a deeply intimate relationship with somebody,” he explains. “Possibly the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life is to be open and make myself vulnerable to love and to be loved. So that’s where Johnny came from really – I just wanted to kind of investigate that. ”
When we first meet Johnny he’s hungover, throwing up, and in no state to work the farm. But trudge out into the wind and rain he does, as there’s no one else to ‘tend the beasts.’ His father (Ian Hart), who’s so miserable he makes Johnny look like a ball of sunshine, has recently had a debilitating stroke, but he’s still able to bark orders to his emotionally repressed son. We learn that Johnny’s mother left the farm years ago (so joyless is the atmosphere there, we can hardly blame her) and Johnny’s grandmother (Gemma Jones) doesn't seem the nurturing type. Dinnertime is a tense affair, with Johnny inhaling his meal along with a can of lager before heading to the local pub to dull his loneliness with more beer.
“I really wanted to create a character who was not just geographically isolated, but emotionally isolated,” says Lee. “For Johnny, it’s hard because all of his friends from school, they’ve all escaped. They’ve all gone to university or college, or they’ve gone and got jobs in town, and he’s left trying to hold the farm together.” While initially Johnny might seem like a stereotype of stunted Northern masculinity, his situation makes his closed off behaviour completely understandable. “I think what’s really important for me as a filmmaker is always trying to find the truth, so it was very important to make that character as authentic and believable as possible. You do believe his situation and he’s not just this gruff Yorkshireman.”
As Johnny, O’Connor is quite a find, giving an emotionally complex performance full of contradictions and surprises. And what’s most impressive is the clarity with which he communicates these emotions physically, with barely any dialogue. Lee explains that O'Connor auditioned by video: “Josh was in America working, so my first experience of him was seeing him play the character on screen and I was super impressed. Straight away there was something within him that was really keying into the character: the emotional repression, the hardness, the vulnerability.” Lee was also convinced O'Connor was a Northerner: “maybe not Yorkshire, but the North certainly.”
When Lee finally met O’Connor in person, he was taken aback. “I was really shocked,” explains Lee. “He’s from Cheltenham! He’s very middle-class, a very lovely, sweet, polite, funny, joyful man and the total antithesis of this character, so straight away I twigged that Josh was obviously a transformative actor.”
O'Connor’s shapeshifting ability might not be the only reason the performance feels so lived in. As well as mapping out Josh’s whole history with the actor, Lee also insisted O’Connor go method, and put him to work on a farm before the shoot. “It was actually the farm we eventually shot the film on,” explains Lee. “For me, the really important thing about working with actors is to make them as immersed as possible, so there aren’t any questions like is this a real world or is that a real person? Josh was doing long shifts, 12 hour shifts, and he would do everything: birth lambs, build walls, he mucked out, he drove the tractor.”
The hands-on preparation wasn’t just so the actor knew and understood what the work was and how to handle the animals. “Tiredness would get into his body, the cold would get into his bones and his physicality started to change,” explains Lee. “Josh is a very sprightly, upright young man, but I knew that Johnny would probably be hunched, he would be cold and wet and miserable. So through the work, and through building that character and bringing those things together, Johnny became tangible. I know Josh quite well now as a friend, and I don’t recognise any part of Josh in Johnny: he doesn’t sound the same, look the same, have the same emotional range. Josh totally transformed himself.”
O’Connor’s performance is no doubt improved further by the easy chemistry he shares with Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, who plays Gheorghe, the migrant worker who comes to the farm to help out during lambing season and with whom he falls in love. Their relationship develops in near silence. Johnny’s suspicion of the handsome foreigner soon gives way to a beautiful, wordless fascination as he observes Gheorghe’s ease with the animals and his deep rooted connection to the land. “We worked very hard to tell this story visually,” Lee explains. “The script was very detailed in action, but not so detailed in dialogue, and in the edit the dialogue actually got cut because the boys were doing such a fantastic job without it.”
The halting relationship the men form is thrillingly romantic, but one thing Lee was careful to do was not romanticise life on the Yorkshire Dales; even more harsh and inhospitable than Johnny’s family is the land around Johnny’s farm. “All the films I’ve ever seen about Yorkshire, or set here, always had these big wide shots of the landscape, and it was presented in this kind of bucolic, pastoral way. That was a way that I’d never seen it.”
Despite the spring setting, Lee and his cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, capture a gloomy, melancholy and brutal atmosphere that’s as prone to spontaneous eruptions as Johnny’s temper or the two men's passions. The local tourist board might not approve of the depiction, but this is Lee’s Yorkshire. “I love it here, but it’s a tough place. When I’m outside my head is down, my hood is up, my hands are in my pockets, and so visually, on screen, I wanted to see the world as I see it every day.”
God's Own Country is released across the UK 1 Sep by Picturehouse Entertainment http://edfilmfest.org.uk