If Ang Lee taught us anything, it’s that you can have intimacy and affection in the most rugged and wildest of places. With inevitable comparisons to Brokeback Mountain swarming the critics’ reviews after the movie’s premiere, God’s Own Country brings back that picturesque and rowdy feel, but certainly doesn’t stop there. This is a bittersweet testament of gay love in the countryside that screened at this year’s Outfest LGBT festival edition.
Sensual, tender and erotic are not really words you’d associate with the Yorkshire Moors. Still, for Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) and Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) they make up a significant part of working on a family farm in Northern England. The former is the 24-year-old son of an ill sheep farmer, Martin Saxby (Ian Hart), and is constantly looking for new ways to escape his isolated existence. Numbing his pain with alcohol and casual sex with local men, Johnny has trouble adapting to the brutality of life in the countryside, as well as meeting someone who can really understand him and his sexuality. When a Romanian farmhand named Gheorghe is hired to work on the land, the young gay Englishman finds himself strangely attracted to the rancher. Both O’Connor and Secareanu’s performances are breathtaking and on-point, brilliantly capturing the characters’ coarse and persistent maturation over the course of the movie.
Francis Lee’s slow-burning drama starts out steady – we don’t even hear the main character Johnny talk until well into the first half of the film, and he’s speaking to one of his farm animals to top it off. By the time the movie reaches its climax the similarities with Brokeback Mountain are weightily transparent: two homosexual farmers finding love in a bucolic and desolate place, sharing a straw mattress in a shed, pursuing a choppy, hot-and-cold relationship and, of course, let’s not forget the notorious image of a work shirt slouched over a wire hanger. Although there are definite resemblances with Annie Proulx’s classic novel and Ang Lee’s adaptation, God’s Own Country gets away with it due to its crude charm and unique way of granting an individual voice to its characters. The deadened green hills and dismal grays ultimately hide an unrestrained British love story that has raw life and emotion at its very core.
Moreover, God’s Own Country is so fascinating and unparalleled because it avoids many of the pitfalls in Brokeback Mountain – it successfully dodges over the already cliché coming-out drama and also doesn’t concentrate too much on rural homophobia or on the romantic or feminine context in which Gheorghe and Johnny’s relationship develops. On the contrary, Johnny’s happiness seems to usually be most jeopardized when he cannot express intimacy or emotion and he is unable to accept himself. Instead, God’s Own Country shifts the focus on other pertinent issues of our current society like immigration, isolation and mental health.
One of the features which makes Francis Lee’s motion picture really stand out is its rustic portrayal of nature and its dedication to conveying the reality and hardships of living in the countryside. To this end, the film does not emphasize the quiet, benign and serene atmosphere you would expect from an agrarian area. Rather it strays far away from the picturesque in order to accurately depict the country lore, as well as the more messy and brutal aspects of nature. One particularly poignant scene is that of Gheorghe skinning a dead lamb to get milk from the animal’s mother. The cinematography by Joshua James Richards is sharp and remarkable, playing right into the movie’s sense of amity and hopefulness in a dreary and bare environment.
All of these elements come together stunningly to put forth a clear message – nature rules unsparingly in God’s Own Country. Sexual liberation and societal acceptance are both put on the backburner in Francis Lee’s film, as O’Connor and Secareanu’s riveting performances frame the murky landscape of the countryside, bringing compassion and warmth to a profusely wretched space of anguish and vicious isolation.