God’s Own Country
By: Taylor Gates
Meet Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young emotionally unavailable gay man who spends his days in the English countryside toiling away as a shepherd and his nights at a pub getting hammered and having random hookups. Meet Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a rugged yet gentle Romanian migrant who Johnny’s tough, workaholic father Martin (Ian Hart) hires to help out on the family’s farm during lambing season.
There’s undeniable chemistry between Johnny and Gheorghe from the get-go. They even look right together—a ying and a yang—Johnny’s quick-temper housed in a pale, skinny body complements Gheorghe’s tanned, muscular level-headedness. However, one has to remember this is rural England we’re talking about here, which isn’t exactly known for its gay pride parades. Johnny’s innate immaturity and denial of his feelings mixed with the complexity of their working relationship adds layers of tension and complication to their undeniable connection.
At first, Johnny does everything in his power to keep Gheorghe at arms length. He calls him a gypsy, he rolls his eyes at him and (at a few points) he even resorts to physically hurting him. But the audience and Gheorghe both know that the abuse Johnny is hurling towards Gheorghe is really aimed at himself and writer/director Francis Lee smartly implements one of the first tricks of juicy, spark-igniting screenwriting to force Johnny to confront his own issues and admit to this: trapping him.
Once Johnny and Gheorghe are sent off to the cold, isolated moors with only campfire and each other to keep warm, the inevitable happens and the two begin a romantic relationship. They work hard during the daylight hours tending to the animals, but when night rolls around they give way to their desires and engage in passionate sex.
The line between roughness and tenderness is blurred in God’s Own Country. It’s clear the film is interested in where the two intersect, managing to find a startling but beautiful realness. This organic authenticity makes everything feel completely natural, and the graphic inclusion of wildlife interspersed throughout is brilliant. The juxtaposition of a cow giving violent, bloody birth with the two men stripping each other naked and rolling around the dirt seems to say, “We’re all just following our primal, messy instincts.”
What’s perhaps most striking about the film is just how quiet it is. Unlike the booming explosions that fill the screen of Wonder Woman or the constant, pulsating soundtrack that overloads Baby Driver, there is silence for the majority of the film. Even the background instrumental numbers are scarcely woven throughout. Instead of boring the viewer or pulling them out of the story, the minimalism has opposite effect forcing us to confront things head on. Raw things. Things that are bare, but yet full of life. Bleak and cold yet at the same time vibrant and beautiful.
God’s Own Country does for winter in Yorkshire what Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled does for summertime in the deep, Civil War-era south. The countryside is a character in and of itself, fleshed out with lush, green hills and stony cottages. Even the visible puffs of air that the characters breathe make you feel as if you need a sweater. The movie thrives off simple details and the bundled up costumes add emphasis and reality to the background in unspoken harmony.
At times, it’s almost an immersive experience. Lee keeps the film tight with a main cast boasting only four characters: Johnny, Gheorge, Martin and Johnny’s grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones). Keeping the call sheet lean is a clever choice by Lee, as it helps the audience understand firsthand what Johnny is going through. Despite the wonders of the rolling hills, life on a rural English farm is one of solitude indeed. Of course, he’s drinking his nights away. Of course, he’s craving more. Of course, he feels trapped. Wouldn’t you?
This, coupled with O’Connor’s heartfelt but controlled performance, makes Johnny a sympathetic character despite his many mistakes and frustrating choices. We’re rooting for him to get the guy even if we’re not always 100% sure he deserves him.
The same thing can be said for Martin as well. This movie is clearly a romance, yes, but it’s also a love story between a father and a son. At one point, Martin’s health starts to decline and he needs help bathing. In one of the most touching scenes in the movie—and cinema as a whole—Johnny takes the washcloth from his grandmother and wordlessly helps his father wash his back. “Thank you,” is all Martin says. And it’s all he needs to say. The strong, stubborn Martin allowing himself to be helped and cared for by his son—both a role reversal and extreme act of compassion and humanity—is enough to choke one up. Hart is excellent in the role, embellishing his character with subtle mannerisms and line deliveries that spin someone who could easily be a flat cliché into full-blown personhood.
That’s the beauty of the movie. At times, it’s almost like a silent film that somehow manages to feel unpretentious and fresh. However, although the sparsity of the words usually works and prevents the film from becoming heavy-handed, there are times when one might think Lee could have benefited from having cushioned the script with just a bit more meat. Lee clearly wrote with a director’s eye in mind, planning to let the performances and landscape speak for itself and while the threadbare script usually works, there are a couple points in the many long stretches of silence that beg a small patch of dialogue or two.
In addition to breathtaking acting by O’Connor and Hart, Secareanu and Jones also deliver. Secareanu is a steady actor and he makes it clear that it’s his character who is holding this whole thing together. He is seductive, charming and mysterious while surprisingly challenging ideas of traditional masculinity. Gheorghe is quicker to accept and reveal himself—more open—but his vulnerability actually enhances his strength, confidence and independence. Both he and Deidre act as positive catalysts at different points in the movie and offer sprinkles of much-needed comic relief that help offset the film’s purely serious tone.
God’s Own Country manages to flawlessly do what every great film aspires to—it makes the ordinary seem extraordinary and addresses huge themes and topics without biting off more than it can chew, seemingly boiling the big questions of the universe down to an enjoyable 104 minutes. Lee’s newest movie takes two men from a rural Yorkshire town and makes them mean something. He makes us care about and root for them all while discovering things about family, life and love.
Bottom line: This film is artsy and gorgeous and if you have the patience for a slow burn romance and the thought of being transported to a lovely English landscape intrigues you, this is the perfect movie for you.
Final rating: A-