Due to its thematically adjacent content and stunning use of wide, open plains, God’s Own Country will undoubtedly be haphazardly compared to Brokeback Mountain, which is a shame because writer/director Francis Lee’s lovely debut never stoops so low as to have an “I-wish-I-knew-how-to-quit-you” moment. Instead, this is a crippling tale of humanity that manages to seep into your psyche without ever taking any hokey cheap shots. The bonds between its characters are so aptly constructed that they feel as if they were lifted out of a Victorian novel.
In the remote hills of Northern Yorkshire, Johnny (Josh O’Connor) explores the waters of his own sexuality while working on his family’s farm. His physical encounters with other men are rough and cold, lacking even a trace of intimacy. When Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) enters his life as a temporary hired hand, Johnny makes no effort to be friendly toward him, cruelly berating him for his Romanian heritage. That is, until the pair are forced to work in close, isolated quarters, when the boundaries between them begin to fade.
A modest film, God’s Own Country boasts little-known performers and spans a relatively short period of time, both of which add to the intimate, naturalistic tone of the story. Francis Lee shows great promise as a filmmaker, taking advantage of well-placed silences and emotive glances. With the aid of keen cinematographer Joshua James Richards, Lee is able to take the monotony of farm life, the cycle of birth and death, and make it feel like a self-contained terrarium of universality.
What’s more, he’s fully realized his characters. Johnny has been removed from society as a whole, and his emotional growth has suffered greatly. As a result, he lashes out in anger, unable to articulate his own developing desires. There is a clash of male energy as Johnny’s masculinity is threatened by the very existence of Gheorghe, particularly when the latter proves to be quite handy around the farm. In an era where there is so much panic surrounding immigration, particularly in the United Kingdom, it is intriguing to see a character from Eastern Europe teaching an Englishman about the complexities of human emotion.
Johnny’s character transformation is artfully achieved, both through the tender script and through O’Connor’s brilliant interpretation of the role. God’s Own Country is a film about stripping away the handicap of prejudice, but more importantly, it chronicles a lonely character’s discovery of how to tear down the barriers that he’s built to keep himself isolated. We see the walls come tumbling down, but never in a way that feels cheesy or ill-deserved. Every step of Johnny’s metamorphosis follows a logical progression, leading to the thoughtful, empathetic man he becomes.
God’s Own Country builds upon a lingering sense of earned romance, rather than an attraction based on convenience, which is sadly too often the case with queer cinema. Surprisingly, the film is as kind-hearted as it is skillfully made. Lee doesn’t find gratification in tortured romance; instead, he shines as two young lovers find their way toward serenity. It is a movie that truly believes in its emotionally sharp characters, and never stops rooting for their fulfillment.