Last week we had BPM, this week it’s God’s Own Country, and if this is the quality I can now expect from gay dramas, well, keep ‘em coming. Then again, my use of the term “gay drama” is distinctly unfair the film. Nothing about it purports to be pointed at a niche crowd, and even though the homosexual nature of the central relationship is indeed important to the thematic framework, it is hardly the anchor. I’ve often said that the biggest indicator of progress is when we can depict ‘a thing’ without being forced to make ‘a thing’ of it, and while there will always be plenty of work to do, it seems we are finally reaching a time when a gay narrative isn’t required to be blatantly defined as such. And even though God’s Own Country features a man coming to terms with his sexuality, it’s really about so much more.
Josh O’ Connor plays John Saxby, the son of a sheep farmer in the hills of Yorkshire. His father has suffered a stroke, so the daily responsibilities have fallen to John. When they day’s duties are complete, John heads to the local pub seeking company and entertainment. Occasionally he finds a young man to fool around with, but most of the time he just drinks himself into oblivion. Why? Because there’s really not much else to do. He’s angry and repressed, and the stiff upper lip sternness of his family life has much to do with his frequent drunken nights.
Enter Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian immigrant who is seeking work at the farm. It is agreed that he will stay for one week and then promptly leave. This is not a case of charity, he is frequently reminded by the Saxby patriarch, and Gheorghe is only welcome for as long as he is useful.
John is resistant to the hired hand at first, acting dismissive and aggressive toward him in turn. But short of being called a gypsy, Gheorghe is unshakeable. He’s just happy to work. And once the two men find themselves in possession of some alone time, it becomes very clear that any tension between them is of a sexual nature. Gheorghe’s quiet confidence reads as experience — as wisdom — and it opens John up to a level of emotional freedom that has been withheld by his circumstances. At the same time Gheorghe is made to reckon with the fact that despite his strong feelings for John, their time together may be limited.
Toss in the Saxby family’s presumptions about the burgeoning relationship and we’ve got ourselves a compelling, if subdued drama.
This is the debut feature from Francis Lee, whose career as an actor has spanned over two decades. His history in front of the camera has clearly informed his abilities as an auteur. It’s clear in the trust that is given to his actors, both of whom are tasked with mining deep thematic work while partaking in the grueling tasks of farming. There are two very frank moments set to the backdrop of real animal births. You don’t get a second take on that. A particularly striking sequence involves Gheorghe removing and prepping the skin of a stillborn lamb so it can be worn by a bastard lamb to facilitate its welcome into a different flock. There’s a “sheep in sheep’s clothing” metaphor here which is a reflection of the lives of both John and Gheorghe. Both men wear an extra layer of insulation from the world in order to be welcome within it. It’s a heartbreaking paradox. It also suggests that just because something isn’t pretty, it doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.
Lee, with cinematographer Joshua James Richards capture to sweeping hills of Yorkshire in a way that speaks to the very same themes. It’s foggy and damp, but it’s also gorgeous. It’s a large expanse of fields and greens, but for our protagonists, it functions as a prison. These views make a strong case for theatrical exhibition of the film, despite being entirely absent of show-stopping spectacle.
Before God’s Own Country, Lee directed a handful of shorts, all of which I’m very interested in seeking out, partially to see if he plays with similar themes, and partially to chart his growth as a filmmaker. With a debut this strong, the future is very bright.
God’s Own Country opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.