Dir/scr Francis Lee. UK, 2017, 104 mins.
A troubled, taciturn young man on a remote Yorkshire farm is the keen focus of first-time film-maker Francis Lee’s intense romance God’s Own Country. Lee’s love for this hard land and the boy trapped in it – so fully embodied by young British actor Josh O’Connor – is unexpectedly moving and rich. This is a small production that is big in heart, honesty and raw talent.
This is clearly a personal film, shot in the part of England where Lee grew up
British films set in this arena can tend towards the paralyzingly dour, but the central Brokeback Mountain romance between the volatile Johnny Saxby (O’Connor) and migrant Romanian farm-hand Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) warms the raw beauty of the countryside and muck and routine of the farm. Frank sexual interludes from the outset will inevitably preclude wider audiences, but God’s Own Country is perfectly suited to festival play, indie awards buzz – particularly in the UK - and niche cinephile-targeted distribution after a launchpad at Sundance.
Indeed, distributors might look to the similarly low-budget Lady Macbeth’s UK opening on April 28 through Altitude to estimate what might lie ahead: both are highly composed and arresting debuts from singular voices which sit on assured performances from young British actors. Giving further ballast to the piece is some standout technical teamwork, particularly in the sound and camera departments. Lee, assisted by DoP Joshua James Richards (Songs My Brothers Taught Me), brings tensile images to the screen which bristle with delicately enhanced sound, and increase in light as the plot begins to lift.
This is clearly a personal film, shot in the part of England where Lee grew up – in fact, near his father’s farm in Keighley, Yorkshire. Being a former actor may also help explain the depth of the performance the director has drawn from young O’Connor (Bridgend), while God’s Own Country marks Secareanu’s screen debut, although his character is more of a blank canvas on which to prise this sweet story of young love out of the gruelling, relentless, routine on a struggling smallholder farm.
Lee starts by fixing his camera on the farmhouse in dawn light, as the noise of Johnny’s post-binge vomiting introduces another long day. Words are doled out meanly between Johnny, his frustrated, crippled father (Ian Hart) and brusque but loving grandmother (Gemma Jones). You quickly get the sense of a hard, unhappy life of missed opportunity as young Johnny takes livestock to market and indulges in some quick, anonymous sex. His one moment of tenderness is for a cow who is about to calf, but that’s a weakness his father refuses to indulge. Johnny gets repeatedly, blindly drunk in the local town, where he has been left behind by his school friends.
Gheorghe, meanwhile has been hired by the family as a farm-hand for a week, and Johnny, attempting a hard-bitten tone, is initially aggressive and racist to the immigrant who is being housed in a basic caravan in the farm’s front paddock. This attitude changes, of course, but the film is less about Gheorghe than Johnny’s struggle to take charge of his life, express himself and break out of his isolation. Sullen and miserable, Johnny is on the edge of things, and O’Connor ably registers the shifting emotions with very little in the way of dialogue. This isn’t a film about coming out - Lee is urgent, earthy and explicit in his approach to flesh, both man and beast, rooting the carnality in the land as a biological necessity in which sexual preference seems matter-of-fact. But it is a film which is most definitely about love. And when it blooms in Johnny’s defensive shell, it should touch the hardest of hearts.
While it never quite looks like an advert for the North Yorkshire Tourist Board, there’s an untamed beauty to God’s Own Country (a term first used to describe an area in Ireland, and later to Australia), while sequences set during lambing are arrestingly authentic. If the scenes involving sex, spit and urine don’t quite convey the fundamentals of this life, moments in which a small animal is skinned – for good reason, as it turns out – brings the point across with no room for argument. Yet rooted in reality though it may be, God’s Own Country turns out to be a romance which soars, and it’s an irresistibly hopeful flight.
Production companies: Shudder Films, Inflammable Films
International sales: Protagonist Pictures
Producers: Manon Ardisson, Jack Tarling
Executive producers: Diarmid Scrimshaw. Anna Duffield
Screenplay: Francis Lee
Cinematography: Joshua James Richards
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Production design: Stephane Collange
Music: Winged Victory for the Sullen
Main cast: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones, Ian Hart