An early scene in Francis Lee’s debut feature, in which Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) washes semi-naked in the background while Johnny (Josh O’Connor), the moody gay son of a Yorkshire farmer, resists gazing at him, is a clear reference to an identically framed scene in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). At one point, a character inhales the scent of another’s shirt, recalling the ending of Lee’s film.
United Kingdom 2017
Certificate 15 1hr 44m
Director Francis Lee
Johnny Saxby Josh O’Connor
Gheorghe Ionescu Alec Secareanu
Deirdre Saxby Gemma Jones
Martin Saxby Ian Hart
UK release date 1 September 2017
Distributor Picturehouse Entertainment
Fifty years after the Sexual Offences Act partially legalised male homosexuality in Britain, the parallels with Brokeback Mountain show how far attitudes towards LGBT people have changed – the sensibility of God’s Own Country is decidedly post-gay. Yet the explicit references to Lee’s western are unnecessary – God’s Own Country is one of the most exciting British debuts of the past decade, and homages to better-known films threaten to distract from Lee’s powerful vision.
A straightforward coming-out story this is not. None of the characters in the film reacts negatively to the fact that the two men are having a relationship. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) and grandmother Deirdre (Gemma Jones) have too many other concerns, related to ill health and their failing farm, to acknowledge the men’s love, though the grandmother’s wry half-smile as she is dismissed from their company suggests she may know more than she lets on.
The hatred a couple of the villagers show towards Gheorghe is motivated by xenophobia rather than homophobia. Johnny’s self-loathing at the start of the film manifests itself through his unwanted work and family responsibilities rather than internalised homophobia, though he clearly fears intimacy, as he bluntly rejects the suggestion of a date with one of his recent sexual conquests (“We? No.”).
Lee has explored the plight of Yorkshire farmers in his short films: the fictional The Farmer’s Wife (2012) and the documentary The Last Smallholder (2014) both followed farmers threatened by hardship and the changing landscape around them. Despite his expressed aim of portraying the harsh, unforgiving Yorkshire landscape as it really is, from the opening shot of the farm at dawn the countryside is tinged with eerie beauty. The relationship between the two men isn’t the only romance in the film, as the camera slowly falls in love with rural Yorkshire, exploding in the end credits into a gorgeous colour montage of archive footage showing farmhands at work in the fields, beautifully accompanied by Patrick Wolf’s haunting song The Days.
This sequence is glorious, perhaps a little foolishly romantic, but the sudden, unexpected burst of dreamy nostalgia is a welcome moment of elation. The title of the film, a phrase affectionately used to describe Yorkshire, is devoid of any irony in these closing minutes.
O’Connor and Secareanu are superb, with O’Connor conveying the vulnerability of the bitter, potentially unsympathetic Johnny – for while it’s clear what the kind, smart Gheorghe gives to Johnny, what the latter has to offer him is more abstract. No one is more hostile to Gheorghe, initially, than Johnny. He is openly racist: “Are you a Paki or something?” he asks him, before going on to call him “gypsy” and “gyppo”.
At first, Gheorghe’s attraction to Johnny is a combination of lust and an apparent need to rescue the vulnerable (he saves a runt lamb, literally breathing life into its lungs). Secareanu’s deadpan style adds a dash of humour to some of the later scenes, which recall Aki Kaurismäki. Deirdre and Martin also thaw as the film progresses – a key scene, in which one of them simply says “thank you”, is as moving as the young men’s romance.
Production of the film began in the run-up to Brexit, the potential consequences of which haunt the story, though Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union is never mentioned. From the hostility shown towards Gheorghe by strangers in the local pub to the struggles of farmers, whose support from EU subsidies may soon be taken away, the stance of the film would seem to favour the pro-remain camp.
While Martin and Deirdre cling to outmoded, traditional farming methods, it is the migrant worker who suggests new ways of operating that may save their farm from disaster. God’s Own Country, alongside recent British films such as Sally Potter’s The Party, a satire riffing on class and politics, and Gurinder Chadha’s end-of-empire drama Viceroy’s House, is surely destined to be framed within the context of Brexit in future years.
Cold comfort farm
After acting for years, Francis Lee gave it all up, found work in a scrap yard and began to make shorts, finally securing funding for his beautifully controlled feature debut God’s Own Country, an intense drama about the love affair between a Yorkshire farmer and his Romanian co-worker. By Trevor Johnston.