By Liam Lacey
The rural Yorkshire setting, careful cinematography, and splendid naturalistic acting blend together to create the rough beauty in God's Own Country, a low-budget English indie which won a directing prize at Sundance. The film is named after the verdant north English region where it is set, the home of 48-year-old actor-turned-director Francis Lee.
You'd have to go back to the work of another Yorkshireman, the late director Tony Richardson and his kitchen-sink dramas circa 1960 (Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner) to find a scenario as bitterly downbeat as the beginning of God's Own Country. The rolling landscape and leaden cloud-smeared skies are beautiful but chilling to the eye and spirit.
Initially, the windswept landscape is little more than background scrim to the claustrophobic drudgery of farm work. The climate inside the Saxby household, taciturn and withholding, is equally inhospitable. Johnny (Josh O’Connor), scowling and hunch-shouldered, labours on his struggling family sheep farm in Yorkshire under the critical watch of his ailing father, Martin (Ian Hart) and grandmother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones). Most mornings, Johnny wakes up vomiting from his drinking at the local pub the night before. On a trip away from the farm to sell a cow at auction, he relieves himself with furtive sexual encounters with a stranger in the back of a van.
What options are there? There's a scene with a friendly young woman school friend (Patsy Ferran) on a break from university, which gives us a sense of Johnny's thwarted potential. Repressed sexuality isn’t his problem so much as chronic absence of tenderness. His mother left, at some point in his childhood, unable to stand the rigors of farm life. His grandmother — forced into being a caregiver for a bitter invalid and a young screw-up — doesn’t attempt to fill the gap.
Then comes Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a slightly older, handsome, bearded Romanian migrant worker, who has been hired to help with the spring lambing. Johnny resents his presence and calls him a gypsy. Gheorghe tells him where to go. They irritate each other and then they head off into the hills together for several nights to take care of the lambing, which Gheorghe handles with delicacy, wiping the mucus from a lamb's mouth and breathing life into it.
The tension between them breaks into wrestling in the mud and then sex. At night-time in a stone hut, there are more gentle explorations, both in body and conversation. By daylight, Johnny even begins to see, through Gheorghe’s perspective, that the country around him is beautiful. No heavenly choirs declare the revelation: the landscape just looks more human-friendly.
Happiness isn't a prize that’s taken so easily. Back at the farm, the watchful Deirdre misses nothing but doesn't judge. Martin's health deteriorates, but Johnny's new connection opens a window of compassion even to his father, a demonstration of the domino effect of kindness. It’s worth mentioning that, a dozen years after Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, here's another movie about a couple of shepherds who fall in love, and this time nobody dies. That’s progress.
God's Own Country. Written and directed by Francis Lee. Starring Josh O'Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart, and Melanie Kilburn. Opens November 3 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox (and expanding nationwide throughout November).