God’s Own Country review: ‘Far more than a Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain’
Francis Lee’s feature length directorial debut has been described as a ‘Yorkshire Brokeback Mountain’, however, this is a simplistic comparison; God’s Own Country is far more than a forbidden farm fling. It is a much more thoughtful examination of people and their relationships and how they can evolve. Despite its bleak tone, it is a fundamentally optimistic and touching film.
Unfolding at a gradual pace, the film tells the story of Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a sullen teenager resentfully toiling away on his family farm. His work is demanding, dirty, and thankless, met with criticism barked from his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and debilitated father (Ian Hart). Isolated in the bleak Yorkshire hills, he finds temporary escape in detached sexual encounters and getting blackout drunk. When Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a quiet Romanian farmhand arrives to help with lambing season, he is the victim of Johnny’s frustration, welcomed only with racial slurs and hostility. During a trip up to the higher fields, Johnny’s coldness towards Gheorghe is broken down, replaced by his desperation for warmth and passion. The budding relationship between Johnny and the patient and nurturing Gheorghe is only the beginning, setting into motion striking changes in Johnny and the rest of the story.
The remarkable thing about this film is its honesty; it is as raw and brutal as the unforgiving landscape it is filmed in. Cold, natural light illuminates the harsh realities of farm life, blood, shit, and all. However, the cruel truth is accompanied by the hopeful acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of life; following the death of a calf, we are, in time, rewarded with the stumbling steps of a new born lamb. This patience and optimism is mirrored in the film.
Similarly, the characters, their troubles and relationships are authentic, especially in the way that they are difficult to decipher at first glance. There is limited dialogue, but silence, glares and body language tell the story in a more subtle way, where empathy comes gradually. Ian Hart’s embodiment of the embittered Martin Saxby, weakened by a stroke, is loathsome, yet he betrays a guarded flicker of vulnerability to coax us to feel sorrow towards him. Secareanu’s tentatively charismatic depiction of Gheorghe makes him the only character that is easy to warm to, there is something in his gorgeous, thoughtful eyes, and certainty in his hands that reassures you that he is a gentle soul.
Finally, the most compelling aspect of the film is the thorough, gradual character development of Johnny. Initially, he is not easy to like, but as time goes on, we begin to understand his frustration and ugly behaviour. O’Connor gives Johnny a striking physicality that communicates so brilliantly what Johnny is unable to. As the film slowly unfolds, Johnny changes gradually and imperceptibly, as a viewer you don’t notice his incremental development, but by the end Johnny as a self-assured young man is quite unrecognisable from the sulky, uncommunicative boy we meet at the beginning. This evolution is quite a feat, made authentic by an intelligent performance from O’Connor and patient direction from Lees, who is in no rush to get to the end.
Overall, God’s Own Country is a slow paced, yet rewarding watch. Our patience and empathy is rewarded with a quieted sense of optimism. It is not immediately enjoyable; the characters are difficult and the setting is bleak, however, just as you learn to appreciate the blustering landscape for its rugged beauty, you sympathise and warm to the hardy, plain-spoken Yorkshire folk. Ploughing through the northern hills at a steady slog, we are far from Hollywood, but the film is all the better for it; God’s Own Country is a breath of fresh Yorkshire air.