God's Own Country
God’s Own Country is a beautiful and tender tale of love set on the windy Yorkshire moors
If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that Emmerdale Farm is a sham. The opening credits for that surprisingly salacious soap opera promises rolling hills and lush green dales from its idyllic Yorkshire setting, but recent cinematic takes on God’s own country (Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy) suggest the region offers a more rugged beauty that’s a tad less pastoral than the Yorkshire tourist board would like to admit.
The countryside in Francis Lee’s debut film – actually called God’s Own Country – is similarly wind-battered, and the turbulent weather perfectly reflects the emotions bubbling under the surface of Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a young farmer from whom the metaphorical glass is not only half empty, but also spilled down his front. His day is spent in drudgery on his family's farm, which he’s been running single-handedly since his father’s stroke. Life offers him few pleasures. He eats for fuel, drinks to numb his senses, and the closest thing he has to a relationship is meaningless sex with a young auctioneer at the local farmers’ market, with whom he has no intention of going on an actual date. The first time we see Johnny, he’s hungover and vomiting.
The young farmer’s self-lacerating stems from a crippling loneliness. While his school friends have escaped to university, the farm and its mountain of daily chores has made Johnny a prisoner. Even the idea of a night out in Bradford seems an exotic pipe dream (“Don’t talk daft!” is his father’s no-nonsense response to the suggestion). For much of the early part of the film, we too are trapped in Johnny’s routine. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards's handheld camera judders close to his hunch shoulders as he mucks out stables, hauls fencing across the fields and gently forces his arm elbow-deep into a cow who's due to calve.
The latter maneuver is the closest thing we get to tenderness in God’s Own Country’s first half hour, but even this act of genteel animal husbandry is scrubbed out with the sharp shock of a shotgun a few scenes later. Rough-hewn visuals and murky lighting are the order of the day, while Johnny’s sand-paper rough Yorkshire accent makes a simple phrase like “pass me a beer” sound vaguely like a threat.
Johnny’s mood gradually improves with the arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a gentle Romanian migrant worker who’s joining the farm for lambing season. As he watches the handsome foreigner's graceful way with the animals and his affinity with the land, there’s a sense that Johnny might be feeling something close to a positive emotion, and it takes him by surprise more than anyone. One night while repairing a dry stone dyke, one thing leads to another and things get mucky between the pair – in more ways than one.
God’s Own Country may be getting superficial comparisons to Brokeback Mountain, another tale of two sheepherders falling for one another on a hillside, but there’s nothing coy about the former’s approach to gay sex. Initially it’s rough, later it’s sweet and tender, but it’s always raw and real.
Lee’s unabashed approach to male nudity helps in this regard, as does the palpable chemistry between O’Connor and Secareanu, who play their characters as yin and yang. Gheorghe teaches Johnny to love, to feel, to lift his head up and take in the beauty of his homeland. He even teaches him to add the accompanying soy sauce sachet to his Pot Noodle; with Gheorghe around, Johnny’s life now has flavour.
Even when Johnny’s mood lightens, the landscape remains ominously bleak, but God's Own Country shows that life up North doesn't have to be grim. One of the most pleasing aspects of Lee’s film is that Johnny’s struggle to find happiness appears to be an internal hang-up, and nothing to do with homophobia within the rural milieu. When those closest to Johnny do realise the nature of his and Gheorghe’s relationship, they’re just glad the miserable sod finally has a smile on his face and a spring in his step.
It’s a testament to Lee’s confidence as a director that he avoids falling foul of the queer canon cliches. By removing that baggage, he’s left to craft a tender love story that’s deeply cinematic and builds to a heart-swelling conclusion free of sentimentality. Call it the British Brokeback if you must, but a windswept Weekend would be more apt.