Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu
Length: 1hr 44m
Raw, bruising and tender, God’s Own Country is the work of a first-time filmmaker with unknown leads and a setting rarely chosen by the movies. It is also one of the best films of the year, a deeply felt story of love, sex and duty that squeezes every ounce of heavy dramatic potential from its minimal plot and small cast.
It is the story of young Yorkshire farmer Johnny Saxby, played with great intensity by Josh O’Connor. He spends his days toiling and his nights drinking, both to excess. His father (Ian Hart) has been left weakened by a stroke, leaving Johnny to tend the land alone in order to support both his father and grandmother (Gemma Jones). Hart does a good job of showing both the guilt and resentment felt by the ailing father as he watches his son take over the burden of physical labour. It is soon Johnny who is feeling resentful however, as Alec Secareanu’s Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe is parachuted in to lighten the load. What follows is an intense path from animosity to desire to genuine love.
Before diving into the deeply felt romance that drives God’s Own Country, it is worth noting that part of the great success of writer-director Francis Lee’s film is that it neatly weaves other elements into its simple love story. One of the film’s most affecting moments comes from its strained father-son relationship, boiling away with the utmost intensity in the film’s background. Carrying the physical burden and punishing hours that come with the farm, Johnny can reasonably feel like he should at least be able to do things his own way. Yet, for his poor father, unable to tend the land he has loved, to relinquish all control, all power and perhaps some of his pride, is understandably difficult. With a talented cast and a refusal to see things from only one side, God’s Own Country finds an empathy and heart that makes it resonate so strongly with the viewer. The raw feeling of the film is also enhanced by the scenes of brutal farming. If not the main focus, the life that farmers lead and the way they are “tied to the land” comes across effectively, as does the daily contact with life, death, flesh and animalistic characteristics that could potentially drive its protagonists’ actions and feelings.
Animalistic is exactly the word that could describe much of Johnny’s behaviour here. Feeding his desires through in-and-out romps in cattle trucks and toilet cubicles, Johnny’s love life is one starkly devoid of the love. In the film’s lengthy and explicit sex scenes, we learn about him, and later Gheorghe, as people. Aggressive and primal, Johnny appears to find his catharsis in this casual sex; getting completely smashed at the pub seems to be his other go-to coping mechanism. When a spark ignites between him and Gheorghe, their encounter begins as a fight and, interestingly, retains this struggling quality throughout. As their relationship evolves, it is through sex that the emotions, desires and personalities of the men are laid bare. It is an excellent technique from Lee that navigates the difficulty of portraying a romance in which few words are spoken. Bold and unflinching in these scenes, it is typical of a filmmaker who confidently establishes a distinctive directorial style on his feature debut. Making great use of close-ups and camera angles that help make the viewer feel more physically involved in the action, as well as taking great time and care to show the many facets of the flesh that makes up our world, it is a visually impressive but never flashy work. The visceral visuals are of course complimented by the visual beauty of Joshua James Richards’ cinematography, as Johnny and Gheorghe’s journey is played out against the bracing Yorkshire moors.
A filmmaker who confidently establishes a distinctive directorial style on his feature debut
With such a focus on the details in physical movement and unspoken emotion, Lee places a heavy responsibility on his two leads. To make Johnny simultaneously passionate, repressed and somewhat inarticulate is a tough job, but O’Connor pulls it off well. Secareanu rounds off a strong cast by playing Gheorghe with a quiet soulfulness. His portrayal appears to add depth to a character that could slip into simple love-bringing saviour territory given the script’s not greatly original plotline and relationship dynamics.
God’s Own Country may not be a story that rings any bells, but it is told in a fresh, natural way with a huge amount of confidence and conviction in its approach. With the ability to bring rage, joy and a tear to the eye of the viewer, Lee’s simple tale has enough meat to linger long in the memory. In his almost primal realism and perfect setting, he has found a love story that will hold up against the best.