God’s Own Country (Lee, 2017)

A good portion of God’s Own Country rests in silence. Human silence, that is. In the background, the wind rustles and sheep bleat. Two men are forced to tend a Yorkshire farm together. One is the owner’s wayward son (Josh O’Connor), a closeted gay man named Johnny who resents his burdens and tries to unsuccessfully drink them away every night. The other is Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), hired help from Romania who does his duties with taciturn efficiency, knowing few in the area accept his presence. Johnny, unable to express himself in a healthy way, tries to dominate Gheorghe using a racial slur, but it only goes so far. Gheorghe knocks him to the ground and threatens to fuck him up if he says the word to him again.

Shortly thereafter, the two fuck. Johnny’s desire overcomes him. Gheorghe doesn’t resist, and reveals that he, too, is gay. They have found each other out, and very soon realise that they need each other as much as the sheep they tend need them.

This is an elemental film by all accounts. There are so many shots of wet manure, muddy fields, animals giving birth. You feel your fingernails crusting with dirt just by watching the day-to-day farming chores transpire. It’s also a kind of transitional piece in several ways: it’s spring, Johnny’s father (Ian Hart) is coping with debilitation, and Johnny is warming to Gheorghe’s presence. Good things and bad things poke out from the corners, and change is in the air. Francis Lee makes you feel it coming through the little things, like how friendly gestures slowly evolve into affectionate, comforting, intimate ones. Gawky, roughened Johnny is tamed by Gheorghe’s gentle calm, and he begins to rage less and smile more. Johnny’s grandmother (Gemma Jones) sees something that startles her at first, but does not let it affect what she knows is best. His father’s health worsens, but the event brings closeness rather than distance. The little things count most in this story, and they are made precious because they speak to the characters’ souls the loudest.

I would’ve liked a few more complications in this, because the malice of the real world is only gestured at once. It feels a bit too sheltered—a complaint I could also lodge about Call Me by Your Name, I guess; however, that was set in the early ‘80s, and so the intolerance was implied as subtext and didn’t need explication. It was always buzzing in the back of Elio and Oliver’s minds, colouring their every move. Here, in a modern setting, we have an explicit scene of xenophobia that endangers a character, and Johnny’s surreptitious cruising tells us point blank that he lives in a town that would not take word of his sexuality kindly. There’s definitely a lack of safety for these characters in spite of the fact that the world has grown more tolerant, yet Lee more or less allows the best case scenarios to happen. Which is fine, as not every LGBTQ story needs to be gloomy. It just comes across as a little naive. I also wanted stronger characterisation for Gheorghe, who is presented as maybe too idealistic a model for Johnny to follow. Lacking any faults. Always sensible and on his best behaviour. Handsome from head to toe. Just nothing particularly interesting about his headspace, nor do we ever know why he falls in love with Johnny. The best thing Secareanu can do is emanate goodness, and he does so. But he’s not asked to do much more.

Nevertheless, there’s a great sense of satisfaction in watching O’Connor’s chemistry with Secareanu, and how pure their love for each other becomes. At its core, God’s Own Country is all about our right to tenderness, and with the Yorkshire pastures as a constant backdrop, tenderness flows out from every stitch in the film’s fabric.