The first full-length film by actor turned filmmaker Francis Lee is a tale of self-discovery and emotional awakening set on the Pennine moors.
Johnny Saxby spends his days working on the family farm watched over by his grandmother and controlling father, too ill following a stroke to run the farm himself. Every night Johnny drinks himself into a stupor, and in the morning he wakes up, vomits and starts his day again. It’s a harsh, lonely existence, lived out on the Yorkshire moors where the lights of the nearby town shine tantalisingly close, a world that Johnny can see but can’t reach. His only physical contact, apart from his work with the animals on the farm, is some rough casual sex in the back of a wagon truck.
Into this grim world comes Romanian farm worker Gheorghe, who quietly observes the deteriorating family dynamic that he finds himself plunged into. On an overnight stay at a remote cattle shed, a sexual encounter between Johnny and Gheorghe is the spark for a transformation of Johnny’s world.
Johnny’s struggle is with feeling anything at all, not with his homosexuality
Suddenly the relentless howling winter winds on the moor are replaced by the sound of rushing water and birdsong, and the dark, muddy paddocks open out to reveal the bleakly stunning landscapes around them. Meanwhile, Johnny is confronted with someone who forces him to go beyond the cold, functional sex that he’s been used to and start to come to terms with both his feelings and the reality of his situation.
As with all great films, there is so much more here than the sum of the parts. Yes, it is a “gay love story”, in the sense that it’s a story about the developing relationship between two men, but the themes are universal – such as the numbing effects of loneliness and the terrifying prospect of love that disrupts the status quo. Indeed, Johnny’s struggle is with feeling anything at all, not with his homosexuality, and his grandmother’s raised eyebrows when she finds a used condom on the bedroom floor is about as strong a reaction as anyone has to the bourgeoning relationship between the two men. The only intolerance on show in the film is directed towards Gheorghe, whose nationality takes on a whole new meaning in our post-Brexit world.
This is a relentlessly unsentimental film, where the brutality of farm life is viscerally realised through the mud, muck and blood of everyday life, but with emotional high points that lift it above just a “grim up north” tale. Josh O’Connor, on the screen for almost the entire time, portrays Johnny’s battle to feel, and to speak about his feelings, with heartbreaking intensity, while newcomer Alec Secareanu plays Gheorghe with magnificent, almost Heathcliffe-like, dark-eyed brooding.
A simple tale, beautifully told, God’s Own Country has already been a massive hit with the critics and picked up awards at film festivals including Edinburgh and Berlin. It’s not hard to see why.
God’s Own Country is on general release from 1 September