God’s Own Country – Film Review by Pat Viale
Director: Francis Lee
Writer: Francis Lee
Stars: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Gemma Jones
Set in rural Yorkshire, director Francis Lee’s début film is a finely crafted and moving story of an emotionally starved young farmer and the intense relationship that he develops with an itinerant Romanian worker who comes to work on the farm. Comparison with Brokeback Mountain is inevitable, but Lee’s film presents a more austere and gritty depiction of the frustrations and constraints of lives limited by circumstance, convention and situation.
From the start when we meet Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), the 23 years old son of sheep farmer Martin (Ian Hart), his loneliness and unhappiness are palpable. Martin has suffered a debilitating stroke and though he is limited in what he can do, he is unwilling to hand over control of the farm to his son who now not only carries the burden of a heavier workload, also has to cope with the constant resentment and disapproval of his father.
We get a glimpse of what Johnny’s earlier life must have been like when he meets a friend, Robyn (Patsy Ferran), who tries to get him to join her for a drink and cannot understand the angry, bitter person he has become. Instead, Johnny binge drinks on his own, escaping from his isolated and trapped existence with anonymous sessions of casual sex in toilets, resisting any hint of tenderness or commitment.
The arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who comes to help during the lambing season, is met with irritation and resentment by Johnny. Regarding it as another sign of his father’s lack of faith in his abilities, he initially responds to the handsome Gheorghe with coldness and insults. But when they are both sent off to a remote part of the moors to supervise the lambing, he gives in to the physical attraction he feels and slowly a relationship develops between the two men.
Lee resists any trace of sentimentality in his film. The visceral scenes of birthing, not for the squeamish, reflect the emotional struggles of Johnny, learning to trust in his feelings and accept the person he is. Large sections of this film have little or no dialogue. The limited verbal exchanges seem to reflect the restricted lives of the protagonists but the camera is an eloquent voice telling us all we need to know.
O’Connor and Secareanu give intense, restrained but, above all, believable performances that keep us on the edge of our seats. As the grandmother struggling to keep the farm viable, Gemma Jones says little but her tacit support of her grandson is one of the most moving scenes in the film. Ian Hart is memorable as the angry, frustrated father, abandoned by his wife, unable to accept the physical and emotional constraints that life has dealt him.
Lee’s film never puts a foot wrong. From the raw, naturalistic camera work of Joshua James Richards to the perfectly judged score of Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Wiltzie, it is never less than engaging. But it is the spare, theatrical direction of the four central actors that gives this film its distinctive quality. As a début movie this is remarkable and promises great things for Lee’s future career.