A rugged young Englishman and a gentle Romanian migrant worker find intimacy atop the lonesome hills of Northern Yorkshire in “God’s Own Country,” Francis Lee’s quietly remarkable debut feature. Embittered by his isolated existence, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) softens upon meeting Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), who has much to teach him, and not just how to delicately breathe life into a newborn lamb. Such explicit scenes of daily farm life give the film documentary-like potency, elevating it far beyond conventional romantic drama.
The sole able-bodied man of the family after his father, Martin (Ian Hart), has a stroke, Johnny Saxby spends his days mucking stalls, pissing on walls, and ducking into cattle trailers for the occasional kiss-free grunting session, a glob of spit rolling down a lily-white bottom. When one such escapade delays his return, Johnny’s beloved cow has delivered a stillborn calf. A disapproving Martin hands him a rifle, and he shoots the calf in the head, the first of many shots depicting the brutality of life up here in “God’s Own Country.” When Johnny lives for himself, however briefly, things die.
When Gheorghe arrives to help with lambing season, bearded and tender-faced, Johnny is initially standoffish as he shows him the weathered RV where he will be sleeping. Lee throws down the gauntlet yet again as the camera, with the laser-beam focus of a nosy child, fixes on Gheorghe’s steady hands as they pull a bloody lamb — afterbirth and all — from the flanks of its bleating mother. Gheorghe performs this feat more than once, the second requiring rigorous rubbing and mouth-to-mouth before the tiny creature springs to life. “He’s just going to be a runt,” says Johnny, looking on coldly.
But Gheorghe has a way with runts, and his pretty brown eyes bore steadily into Johnny’s as they flicker hungrily over his body. In the most obvious “Brokeback” similarity, they retreat to a high paddock for a few days, cutting their hands on a stone wall by day and sharing a straw mattress in a drafty shed by night. A sincere fight quickly turns to mud wrestling, which turns to another hurried grunting session. It isn’t long before Gheorghe introduces Johnny to the pleasures of intimacy, his life-giving hands caressing Johnny’s face and pulling him in for a kiss.
But if the foggy grays and muted green hills so elegantly captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards are any indication, all good things must come to an end. After the boys return from their hillside escape, Martin has another stroke, and Johnny is confronted with the full weight of his burden. Johnny alone must keep the farm afloat, supporting Martin and his mother, Deidre (the excellent Gemma Jones).
Lee underscores Johnny’s isolation by confining most of the action to the farm and its daily routines. Occasional detours to the local pub, run-ins with an old friend, and even the passing of a plane overhead, hint at an outside world in stark contrast to Johnny’s solitary existence. Music is largely absent, save for one brief moment of repose when Gheorghe implores Johnny to admire the view: “It’s beautiful here, but lonely, no?”
Nature rules in “God’s Own Country,” human and other kinds. Lee supplements the more shocking images, like Johnny’s gloved arm plunging into a protesting cow’s backside, with the small beauties of butterflies and beetles. What could have tread familiar ground instead knits a verité pastiche out of the rigors of farm life, artfully binding Johnny’s quiet drama with the drama of the landscape that entraps him.
Comparisons to Ang Lee’s film are inevitable (the two directors even share a last name), but “God’s Own Country” thankfully lacks its “I can’t quit you” moment. Some parts are so referential they seem to dare one to draw comparisons; like the aforementioned spit-as-lube (don’t try that at home), or Johnny cradling Gheorghe’s sweater. While the commercial success of “Brokeback” was a milestone for gay films, many gay viewers took issue with the fate of its star-crossed lovers. Without giving too much away, “God’s Own Country” mostly avoids such pitfalls.
The only tonal misfire is a recurring joke where Johnny and Gheorghe call each other “freak” and “faggot” lovingly, at least somewhat. While this vocal self-loathing fits the characters, its place of honor in the film’s denouement is distracting. On the other hand, as one British native pointed out, even Johnny’s repressed-but-sexually-active gayness is quite rare for Yorkshire.
Progress, as Americans now know all too bitterly, moves slowly. Sexual liberation has not spread into the rural sheep farms of Northern Yorkshire. There will be many people who see themselves in the furtive glances and mud-covered kisses from which “God’s Own Country” weaves its harsh but hopeful narrative, and they will do so while witnessing a finely crafted piece of cinema.
“God’s Own Country” premiered in World Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2017.