Francis Lee’s directorial debut opens with a shot of the film’s protagonist Johnny (Josh O’Connor) throwing up into a toilet. All we can hear is retching before his swollen face emerges from the bowl. This sets the tone for a uniquely immersive cinematic experience, that lingers on every gritty detail, as a film that takes place on a farm and has an unwavering commitment to authenticity, with a core romantic narrative that is enriched by the director’s inclination to study man’s relationship with the land he inhabits.
Johnny works, isolated, on his family’s farm in Yorkshire, with the lone responsibility of getting all of the laborious tasks done – given he lives with his debilitated father Martin (Ian Hart), and grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones). It’s lambing season, and to help lighten the load of this troubled, alcoholic youngster, they hire Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Romanian actor Alec Secareanu). With casual xenophobia bubbling under the surface, the foreigner keeps himself to himself, particularly given the inhospitable welcoming from Johnny. That is until the two boys fall in love with one another, as a beautiful, if somewhat intense relationship begins between the two.
Naturally comparisons to Brokeback Mountain are made, but there is a key difference here – for Ang Lee’s acclaimed drama focused on the notion of forbidden love, of two men who felt they couldn’t be together due to the perception of others. In this instance the two struggle to come to terms with how strongly they feel, not because they care about anyone else, but due to their own inability to commit, to surrender themselves to another person.
The journey both actors go on is just remarkable, so subtle and nuanced as they progress through this complex, emotional situation. It therefore comes as little surprise to learn that Lee insisted the film was shot chronologically – which is one of several effective decisions the filmmaker made, that helps craft this narrative and build these characters to a point where we just give ourselves to this movie, and invest so fervently in the core relationship.
God’s Own Country is a striking debut that should mark the beginning on an immensely triumphant career behind the camera for Lee. Visually, narratively, emotionally – this film succeeds on every level, and does so in such an uncompromising way. Yet amidst the mud, the blood and the tears is a beautiful romantic story, and one that comes full of hope.
Secareanu played a gay character once before – on stage – and so every night they had to play with a prominent police presence due to the themes explored. So one can only hope that a film of this nature can receive a global distribution and play in such territories, and help remind people of the power of true love, as no matter your sexual orientation, you can resonate with the lead characters’ emotional journeys, for when this film isn’t showing lambs being born or being skinned, it’s focusing on a very pure, very real coming together between two people.
God’s Own Country is playing at the Transylvania International Film Festival 2017.