God’s Own Country
Francis Lee (director and writer), Joshua James Richards (cinematographer), Chris Wyatt (editor)
Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones (cast)
Released October 25, 2017
The first time I saw Brokeback Mountain I got pre-emptively high and sobbed through the first third of the film, the happy parts. I spent the latter two thirds sobered up and empty, watching the tentative relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist blossom and then immediately wither; watching their misery increase year on year. Brokeback Mountain isn’t the only sad gay farming movie–when I first saw the trailer for God’s Own Country I surprised myself by realizing I’d seen quite a few of them–but it’s kind of the quintessential sad gay farming movie. The apotheosis of this most miserable–at least in fiction–cross-section of film is being closeted, queer, rural, and poor.
Even last year’s Being Seventeen, a French film about rural teens who are forced to work together and find recognition and companionship in each other, has a bittersweet ending. The young lovers in that film, Damien and Thomas, are never quite lovers. Rather they’re always on the edge between friends and enemies, old resentments and social mores always getting in the way. Neither boy is quite ready to be out, nor do they have any model of what queer masculinity would look like in a rural context. Even as the forced intimacy of working together, being each other’s only companion at times, draws them together and to know each other, they are always busy tearing themselves and each other apart. It’s not Brokeback in every detail–there is a class barrier between the boys, since Damien is destined for vet school, while Thomas is meant to inherit the family farm–but it’s cut from the same cloth.
God’s Own Country begins in similar territory: closeted Johnny (Josh O’Connor) is struggling to maintain the family’s Yorkshire sheep farm in the wake of his father’s debilitating stroke. He doesn’t have the freedom to run the farm the way he’d like and feels hemmed in by his dad, Martin, and grandmother, Deirdre, both of whom treat him like a dumb kid. That’s in response to Johnny’s combined evasiveness and perpetual drunkenness–neither of which qualities make him an ideal small business owner. But what Martin and Deirdre don’t know is that Johnny’s late nights at the pub and inexplicable disappearances are in part because he’s gay and not yet comfortable in his skin. Like the boys of Being Seventeen, or indeed of Brokeback Mountain, Johnny doesn’t have a model of rural, queer masculinity; he doesn’t know how he’s meant to live this life, his life. When the family hires Romanian migrant farm worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) to help Johnny with the spring lambing, he begins to see a path.
Johnny and Gheorghe don’t like each other at first. Johnny resents his presence, pushes him around and even hurls racial slurs at him. Their relationship starts out nasty, with violence building up steadily under the surface. Once they’re away from Martin and Deirdre, alone in the world but for the sheep and an endless rolling horizon of English countryside and scant light breaking through the gloom, that violence explodes between them, both verbally and physically and indeed sexually. It’s a rough beginning to a relationship, to say the least, but one that transforms over the course of the spring lambing into something that’s affectionate, sensual, and open. Gheorghe is both Johnny’s lover and that model of masculinity he so sorely needs. Johnny is Gheorghe’s hope for something stable and permanent, after going where the work takes him for so long. They share secrets, learn to be comfortable in their own skin and with each other, and make plans for the future. They have a real relationship, one that doesn’t feel wholly supported by their isolation. It seems like something that could last.
Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu convey this possibility of a future–this growing, deep affection–through subtle, minimalist performances that never descend into cowboy cliches. Their Johnny and Gheorghe aren’t macho, men of few words, but rather passionate men, tentatively working towards the right words. Johnny, while at first mistrustful of Gheorghe, is soon joyful in his presence and in love with even the idea of him–not just a sexual partner, but a man who understands him and his work and pushes him to be better. Gheorghe, meanwhile, is delighted at the prospect of finding a new home, somewhere his expertise is actually valued and necessary and where there is someone he can love unreservedly. So much of this interplay is told through their expressions and body language; their silent communication as important as their dialogue.
Writer/director Francis Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards work to frame their every interaction just so–God’s Own Country is a film where every frame is full of light and texture specifically designed to convey the subtle nuances of this relationship, and to give it a specificity anchored in this place and time. It’s a sensual film that lingers over all the mundane details of farming life–especially making good use of the spring lambing to explore death and rebirth–and emphasizes physicality. We see Johnny take a piss against the side of the barn. We see Gheorghe give himself a quick, morning wipe-down, in lieu of a bath, before getting covered in the mess of birthing lambs, uterine blood and fluids. We see Johnny give his father Martin a bath, and see the tremble in Martin’s shoulders, both embarrassment and gratitude. And we see a lot of terribly endearing, real life lambs, Gheorghe’s efforts to save an orphaned lamb being even more essential to the growth of their relationship than how hot Johnny finds him. Richards’ unstinting camera serves up these details so that we may understand that this is how Johnny and Gheorghe must live their lives and build their relationship, honestly and without equivocation.
There’s a certain familiarity in how Lee and Richards approach the material, how they use all the space this setting affords them. I don’t mention Brokeback Mountain and Being Seventeen just because there are similarities of plot and character. A rural setting, specifically one with vast ranches, sheep farms, or long rows of crops stretching across rolling hills, tempts a cinematography into wide shots with no ceiling, and to using pathetic fallacy to hasten along character development or hammer home all those rural cliches. Those films shares with God’s Own Country a reluctance to get too grand with its landscape–all three films contain stunning shots to be sure, but they understand that the setting is not the whole of the story. But God’s Own Country in particular manages a trick of scale, pairing those wide shots of distant fields and rock walls beneath deep skies with Johnny and Gheorghe, sitting quietly together and maintaining intimacy in the face of something bigger than them. No theme or social issue or indeed landscape can overwhelm the individuals in this film, on which Lee and Richards want us to spend all our attention.
I’m going to spoil you now for the film’s third act. If you stop reading now you’ll know enough, I hope, to watch it before it leaves theatres, knowing that it’s an intimate portrait of a difficult but eventually beautiful relationship. But if you want to keep reading, you’ll know why I came to love it so much.
We aren’t exactly bereft of intimate portraits of queer characters on film, especially sad ones. And while God’s Own Country has long moments of slow sadness and melancholy, it also has something I had no idea I needed: a happy ending for these sad, gay farmers. It’s not an easy happiness, nor even one that’s guaranteed to last, but it’s one that feels genuine and even joyous. It’s unmoderated, is the thing; it is, in the end, a relationship they don’t have to hide, one that Johnny’s family comes to accept and approve of, and one where, we hope, Johnny has learned enough about himself to be good to Gheorghe and keep him safe. It’s… a happy ending and I had no idea how much I needed this film–this kind of film–to have one, until it gave it to me.