Described by some as a British Brokeback, or perhaps a Maltby Moonlight, Francis Lee’s directorial debut has a character all its own: a rough, tender, distinctly Yorkshire love story.
Based partly on Lee’s own upbringing, God’s Own Country follows the travails of Johnny (Josh O’Connor), a nervy, inarticulate young man who’s stuck running the family farm when his dad Martin (Ian Hart) is left debilitated by a stroke.
Johnny spends his days out on the moors of the West Riding, tending the flock; alone, and usually worse for wear after a night of solitary drinking at the local pub. His only human contact is the occasional inarticulate, impromptu hook-up with the few fragmented individuals that pass for the young gay community in rural Yorkshire.
His isolation is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Gheorge (Alec Secăreanu), a Romanian immigrant brought in to lend a hand. Johnny is, at first, antagonistic to this foreign stranger brought into his home (or at least the neighbouring caravan).
However, the two men discover something unexpected amid the sheep, the gorse, and a pot noodle; a spark that the whistling wind kindles into something more. Their first sexual encounter begins with grappling, before the sudden, desperate shedding of clothes; and ends with two pale forms thrusting away in the mud with desperate need.
This animal passion, though, gives way to romance, affection; Gheorge kissing Johnny’s hands in the glow of the camp-light.
Gheorge, with his well-kept beard and his woolly jumper, is a calming influence, at ease; the one person seemingly able to stop Johnny retreating into himself. Johnny’s taken off guard when Gheorge mentions the natural beauty of the dales; the sort of talk one can imagine the Johnny’s folks, resolutely unsentimental as they are, might well dismiss as “wet”.
When Johnny’s flinty-eyed, no-nonsense gran, Deirdre (Gemma Jones), finds a used condom in his room, the implication is clear, but, rather than address the matter, she simply flushes it away.
Gheorge’s present presence runs counter to this pragmatism: during the lambing, he saves the life of a runt, even kitting it out in an extra fleece; despite Johnny’s suggestion to let it die. There is an inherent romanticism to these scenes, which Lee holds back on with regards to his characters.
Avoiding the usual dramatic cliches – like what happens if the hardy Yorkshire folk discover Johnny’s gay?1 – God’s Own Country is as much about fear as love. Johnny is afraid both of loneliness, of being trapped, but jeopardises his chances of escaping by falling back on bad habits. A shot at him slumped in the tub recalls a similar shot of Martin; both, in their own way, helpless.
Both O’Connor and Secăreanu are assured in what should be breakout roles. Hart gives a career-best performance as Martin, proud and challenging, raging silently against the dying of the light.
God’s Own Country is a moving, windswept depiction about loving, being loved, and staking a claim on what you want.