God’s Own Country is a semi-autobiographical effort from writer/director Francis Lee, executed with the sort of harsh griminess that might have made Ken Loach smile.
However, this isn’t just a ‘kitchen-sink’ chronicle of rural life on a Yorkshire farm but a tale of a same-sex love affair, and while that revelation isn’t exactly a spoiler, it’s something that some viewers might find uncomfortable.
Young Yorkshire lad Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) is rather unwillingly working at keeping his family’s farm going, as his Dad Martin (Ian Hart, sort of the original Voldemort) has been left partly paralysed after a stroke, and his grandmother Deidre (Gemma Jones, a.k.a. Bridget Jones’s Mum) keeps pushing him. Director Lee makes clear he wants to be as realistic and unsentimental as possible right from the word go too: within a mere seven minutes we see O’Connor (no body double, no cutaway) insert his arm into a pregnant cow’s birth canal, and then enjoy fairly explicit sex with a stranger in a horse trailer.
No one seems to know about Johnny’s secret though, and he’s not exactly at ease with it too, which means that he gets blind drunk almost every night (the sight of him waking, horribly hung-over, from a nap under some tarpaulins, and against an old brick fence, as chickens feed nearby is a memorable one). He’s also rude and aggressive to everyone, so when a Romanian migrant named Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) comes to take up a job as a farmhand, Johnny sets about sneeringly calling him ‘gypsy’.
As it’s spring in Yorkshire, much needs to done on the farm, and Johnny and Gheorghe must sleep in a barn for several nights while birthing the lambs (unflinching scenes filmed at director Lee’s Dad’s farm) and other work, and their attraction grows until the expected angry, hungry sex-in-the-mud sequence happens. Johnny, who has previously scoffed at the idea of intimacy, is then unable to leave Gheorghe’s side, and soon they’re talking about each other’s past, Johnny’s having sweet lessons in the Romanian language and, just possibly, the two are swooning.
Despite that plotline, this isn’t really Brokeback Mountain, as Ang Lee’s movie was about homophobia, changing attitudes to sexuality and fate, while Lee’s movie is about homophobia, racism, snobbery (a little) and the desperation of life on a Yorkshire farm versus the sheer desperation of life in a ruined Romania. It’s also intriguing to consider how it might have been a standard heterosexual love story, if Gheorghe had been a lovely English lass and not a smouldering hunk, and Lee had wanted to make something far less brave.
Some have celebrated this one as a queer masterpiece, which it isn’t quite. Yet it’s nevertheless still strongly handled, boldly played by all, and pretty damn sensual.
Rated MA. God’s Own Country is in cinemas now