“It’s beautiful here, but lonely,” says Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant who has found work as a farmer in the English countryside. It is a rather astute and accurate observation, that more or less encapsulates the thematic territory of Francis Lee’s debut feature, God’s Own Country.
The film centres around Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young but disgruntled man who helps his father (Ian Hart) by tending to the family farm. Johnny’s friends have departed Yorkshire in search of a university education, leaving Johnny to languish in a rural town where very little happens. In one fiery scene, the morning after a drunken night, Johnny howls at his father, despairing that “there is nothing to fucking do.” Johnny quells his disaffection by drinking obscene amounts of alcohol and meeting anonymous men for sexual favours.
Most of his time, however, is occupied at the farm. His father, Martin, is recovering from a stroke, meaning the responsibility to maintain the farm principally falls on Johnny. He fixes broken fences, checks whether cows are pregnant, and roams across the green, picturesque farmlands, all the while with a hardened grimace on his face. One of Lee’s greatest achievements as a first-time director is the skill with which he films the English countryside. He unmistakably captures the great beauty of the wide, expansive grasslands; but he also locates in his images a sense of suffocation, of imprisonment, that exists in tension with the visual splendour. Even though the land is tremendously vast, Johnny is confined, by circumstance, to the demanding duties of farm work.
Johnny, the film’s main subject of interest, is not much of a talker. He prefers to brood, to wallow, and to observe. As a consequence of this, Lee’s film predominantly defines itself through image, often by focusing the camera on characters’ faces in mid close-up shots. Indeed, Lee’s use of the close-up is greater than most in contemporary cinema, which ends up creating a profoundly intimate, disarming cinematic effect. Every facial expression, twitch and adjustment is documented in exquisite detail, giving us privileged access to the interior lives of the characters, particularly Johnny and Gheorghe.
Gheorghe comes to work on the Saxby farm as an extra hand in lambing season. At first, his relationship with Johnny is abrasive, as Johnny doesn’t take too kindly to him. But after an ardent, messy display of physical attraction between the men, Johnny and Gheorghe develop a special romantic bond.
Although it seems Lee intends to film the sex scenes in God’s Own Country in a real, unsentimental way, what he ends up doing is something markedly different. In each instance – from Johnny’s bathroom encounters with random men, to the scenes with Gheorghe – Lee tries too hard to invoke textures of tenderness and violence, which make them self-conscious, overcooked displays. This is unfortunate, as the film mostly lathers itself in a natural quietude that wants to make sense of the characters and of the landscape.
This is not the only imperfection in Lee’s film. Midway through the film, after establishing Johnny and Gheorghe’s romantic relationship, the screenplay tanks abruptly. For the next twenty minutes, Lee presents us with interactions and scenarios that we have, in essence, already seen. That is, these scenes feel as though they develop very little. They are mainly composed of shorter, vignette-like scenes that tread over the same ground in earlier parts of the film. Soon thereafter, however, Lee rejigs the film’s engine, returning to scenes of substantial feeling and consequence.
O’Connor and Secareanu deliver what ought to be breakout performances. Similar to Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s chemistry in Brokeback Mountain, O’Connor and Secareanu communicate the depth of feeling between their characters by way of glances, touches and smiles. It is O’Connor who shines brightest, giving a sensitive, affective performance that seamlessly shifts Johnny from deep-seated cynicism towards purposefulness. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones (Johnny’s grandmother) do fine jobs in thankless roles.
Bolstered by a redemptive, emotionally penetrating ending, God’s Own Country thrives in its moments of apparent spiritual emptiness, and even more so in those of warmth, connection and compassion.
God’s Own Country is in cinemas from 31st August through Rialto Distribution.