Film

God's Own Country review – much more than just a British Brokeback Mountain

Taking a determinedly unsentimental view of English country life and attitudes to romance and sexuality, Francis Lee's drama is a triumph

God’s Own Country has routinely been referred to as Yorkshire’s Brokeback Mountain. I can see similarities, not least the physical sensuality brought to the sex scenes by Francis Lee and his two leads (memorably covered in mud by the end of their first tryst). “It’s beautiful here,” a character says of the Yorkshire countryside in which this fine British drama takes place. Then, having gulped on some tea from a sizeable enamel mug, adds, “But lonely, no?”

The comment reverberates throughout this accomplished feature debut from writer-director Lee. This is a film delicately attuned to rural life in all its lyrical and sublime glories, with special credit to cinematographer Joshua James Richards for capturing the wild splendour of his Yorkshire locations. But make no mistake: this is a determinedly unsentimental view of country life.

Our focus is on Johnny Saxby (played in willowy and introspective style by Josh O’Connor), a man in his early twenties who shoulders the duties of the family farm that he shares with his father (Ian Hart) and elderly nan (Gemma Jones). It is a tough life: all early morning starts in the grey drizzle with an income scratched from looking after livestock in all weathers.

A quick, furtive liaison with a vet in a cattle truck surely counts as a cinematic first

He’s lonely, too, and gay, a fact he’s keen to avoid volunteering to the socially conservative community into which he ventures at the end of the day for countless pints at the local pub (Johnny is, among other things, a borderline alcoholic). On a rare day excursion to the nearby market town to sell livestock he engineers a quick, furtive liaison with a vet his own age (in a cattle truck – which surely counts as a cinematic first). But afterwards when the man suggests a drink, Johnny is horrified. Getting on with farm work with a kind of grim resignation, he recoils with gruff horror from any prospect of pleasure or romance.

It’s a familiar, even stereotypical image of Yorkshire masculinity: doughty, uncomplaining, no-nonsense, shot through with an attitude that’s as hard and flinty as the constituent parts of the dry-stone walls lining the hills hereabouts. But then Johnny’s father takes on a labourer, the Romanian Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), to help out on the farm.

Johnny is spiky towards this newcomer at first, subjecting the Eastern European to racist taunts. But on an excursion into the hills over a few nights the two men develop a kind of grudging bond, which itself disguises a deeper attraction. Outside the ruins of a cottage where they’ve set up camp, Johnny and Gheorghe have sex, and continue a secret relationship once they’re back at the farm.

But there’s also something very English about the burgeoning romance between Johnny and Gheorghe. This is a relationship of loaded looks and illicit encounters that owes as much to the repressed passion of Brief Encounter as the doomy romance of Ang Lee’s Wyoming masterpiece.

It’s also a film about the unsparing drudgery of agricultural life in contemporary Britain. Johnny’s reaction to news that his father won’t ever be able to help on the farm following a stroke is a wonderful piece of acting by O’Connor; with a single expression he pictures a future of working alone, as if condemned to a life of hard labour for a crime he hasn’t committed. And yet underpinning it is a tender, quietly affirmative romance, beautifully brought to the screen by O’Connor and Secareanu. Against a vividly painted backdrop of rural life in all its hardscrabble extremes, there are moments of muted optimism, as welcome as a ray of sunlight through a break in the grey clouds of a Yorkshire spring.

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