It was reading about his highly anticipated 2020 film Ammonite that jolted me into the realisation that I’d never got around to seeing God’s Own Country, former actor Francis Lee’s 2017 debut as writer/director. It was on the must-watch list and then another load of must-watches came along and it got lost. Thanks to the imminence of Ammonite, amends have now been made.
“God’s own county” (not “country”) is what proud Yorshirefolk call England’s biggest (and once richest) administrative region, a sentiment not shared by the protagonist of this tale of big emotions played out on small canvases.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) hates Yorkshire, he hates the family farm he works on with his increasingly ailing dad (Ian Hart) and severe nan (Gemma Jones), hates the fact he’s stuck there while other, luckier locals have gone off to university, the big city, wherever. When not grudgingly tending to the sheep, he’s either having quick bouts of joyless gay sex with whoever will do it with him – strictly no strings, he doesn’t want a relationship – or else getting absolutely hammered on booze.
Francis Lee is gay and grew up on a West Yorkshire farm next door to where this was shot, so this might be his own story, and being a debut you’d expect a bit of “write what you know”. Whether it is or not, Lee – who headed to the fleshpots of London as a young man but now lives back on the Yorkshire moors – has spotted that there’s a lot of dramatic tension to be had from the juxtaposition of being a young gay man and being a Yorkshire native, where stoicism is a way of life and “mithering” is something you never want to be accused of. Out and proud, it’s all a bit too demonstrative.
Johnny’s home seethes with emotions held in check – Dad is silent and furious, Nan is tight-lipped. “Hear all, see all, say nowt…” as the old Yorkshire saying starts.
Then along comes temporary Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) – a “Gypo” Johnny calls him – to help with the lambing for a week or so. He’s a dark, handsome stranger, a Heathcliff from Eastern Europe with a gentle touch when it comes to ewes in difficulty and robust enough to absorb Johnny’s open hostility.
They fall for each other, and we spend the rest of the film watching Johnny’s granite rejection of emotional attachment being worn down by a force he can’t control.
Neither man says much, but everything they do say is freighted with meaning. They call each other “faggot” as a term of endearment, because saying “I love you” is impossible, for Johnny at any rate. And they have fast, hard sex, rolling around in the mud outside in their first physical encounter, because that way it’s a physical rather than emotional act (and it makes the whole thing somehow more manly).
In a Hollywood film you’d probably get a big affirmative finish, perhaps even a musical number (joke) but though Johnny’s journey is epic and transformational, the fireworks are all internal – and here the acting by O’Connor in particular, but also Secareanu, Hart and Jones is exactly of a piece with the bleak cinematography (don’t expect sunshine), the gritty landscape and the flat interiors.
It’s not a one to ten sort of film, more a zero to one – binary – the biggest transformation of all.
God’s Own Country is regularly bracketed with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. But whereas the first is a gay drama (coming out, or whether to, is the issue), Weekend has gone beyond that (being out is the issue) while God’s Own Country is further along still – it’s a post-gay drama. Here, being a mardy Yorkshireman is of much more significance than sexual orientation.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020