Set in the blustery, gray Yorkshire countryside, “God’s Own Country,” the debut film of writer and director Francis Lee, is magical in its intentional harshness, poignantly displaying the graceless struggle of coming to terms with one’s circumstances. Much of the film is based on Lee’s own experience working on a farm and the oppression he suffered there. A film that is light in dialogue but heavy in physical displays of emotion, “God’s Own Country” is a powerful depiction of the way in which a life marked with bitterness and frustration can begin moving toward hope.
“God’s Own Country” explores the life of Johnny, a young man played by Josh O’Connor who works long hours on his family’s sheep farm. His father, played by Ian Hart, has suffered a stroke and is on crutches, so the responsibility for the house and the farm fall on Johnny’s shoulders. In the evenings, he assuages his boredom and frustration by drinking himself blind at the local pub and having casual sex with random men.
His life continues in this joyless manner until the arrival of Gheorghe, a strikingly handsome Romanian farmhand played by Alec Secareanu who has been hired to help during lambing season. Johnny is initially unwelcoming to Gheorghe, but their relationship soon blossoms into a romance. The progression of the movie is marked by Johnny’s character development and his transition from bitter indifference to a self-aware desire to live his life on his own terms.
The performances by O’Connor and Secareanu are so bracing and powerful that the film is saturated with scenes of silence in which the men convey their characters’ feelings purely through facial expressions and physical movement.
Part of the authenticity in their performances is due to the training they received: In preparation for the film, both men had to work 12-hour shifts on farms for two weeks so that they could learn to perform the duties that would be expected of their characters. Lee also wrote out detailed descriptions of both characters — down to where they bought their socks — and discussed them with the actors so that O’Connor and Secareanu could deliver the most in-depth, realistic performances.
O’Connor and Secareanu’s incredible performances are set against Yorkshire, highlighting the film’s interaction with nature. The gray landscape and vast fields initially reflect Johnny’s lonely, barren existence, but Gheorghe’s arrival brings the land’s beauty to light. Many of the film’s most significant scenes also occur in the presence of nature.
For example, Gheorghe and Johnny’s first sexual encounter is outside. The men are streaked with mud, and the land around them seems to play a role in the impulsive nature of their tryst. The next morning, Gheorghe looks around and says, “It’s beautiful here.” Until this moment, the beauty of the land is overshadowed by Johnny’s toxic lifestyle and feelings of frustration. But as Johnny begins releasing his pent-up emotions, the brighter sides of the film come to light, just like the beauty of the countryside.
Outside of Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance, “God’s Own Country” also successfully explores Johnny’s relationship with his father. From early on, it is clear that Johnny resents the legacy that he is expected to fulfill and his father’s high demands. At the beginning of the film, Johnny and his father’s relationship is raw and acerbic, but as Johnny’s heart opens to Gheorghe, his interaction with his father grows softer.
“God’s Own Country” pushes the envelope in ways not often seen in American cinematography, namely through the explicit, realistic examples of gay sexual encounters. The vivid depictions of sex allow viewers to see Johnny’s personal growth and increased self-awareness and allow the expression of emotions that would be difficult to convey in words.
“God’s Own Country” is a film marked by transitions — harshness to softness, darkness to light and tense conflict to understanding and content. This film is a thought-provoking, gripping meditation on the power of a relationship to change one’s worldview.
Lee, whose own experiences growing up on a farm as an openly gay man are reflected in the film, hit the nail on the head with “God’s Own Country.” Although he is keeping quiet about his upcoming projects, based on his work with this film, they are bound to be unmissable.