Prior to watching God’s Own Country, I was fully aware of the film’s LGBT affiliation, but to my surprise I was presented with a story that portrayed multiple minorities, a story bursting at the seams with issues surrounding homophobia, racism, immigration, family loyalty and the clashes of generational idealism.
In the opening of the film we are immediately introduced to the groundhog day that is Johnny Saxby’s life - a seemingly endless cycle of isolation that consists of a long hard day at the farm, minimal interaction with his family, drinking himself into oblivion, and the odd random sexual encounter with a stranger. Set in the picturesque Yorkshire Dales (nicknamed God’s Own Country) the vast landscape appears to be the metaphorical cage that determines Johnny’s everyday life.
The farm is a family business, but due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is responsible for single-handedly running the farm, much to his father’s dismay. He is a solitary character who uses minimal dialogue throughout much of the film, and appears to have no friends, apart from a childhood acquaintance who returns for a visit from her urban university lifestyle. He appears ‘left behind’ and unfulfilled, but without expressing any desire to do anything other than what his family expect him to do, which is to work on the farm.
Unable to maintain the workload alone, his father employs Gheorghe, a mild mannered Romanian farmer who speaks impeccable English and has a wealth of skills in agriculture. Through a series of casual racial slurs it is apparent that Johnny resents Gheorghe for both his skill set and the fact that he has somehow disappointed his father by not being able to run the farm alone. However, after countless stolen glances and long intense stares, Gheorghe’s endearing nature begins to thaw the troubled Yorkshire man, and their relationship begins to develop.
The social acceptance of same sex relationships is a key component of God’s Own Country, but director, Francis Lee, goes one step further by integrating an immigrant character and highlighting a whole new dimension of prejudice. By far the most likeable character in the film, Gheorghe is compassionate, well educated and hardworking; a potential political point to abolish the ignorant stereotypes of immigrants that relocate to the UK. Despite being a long way from home and being given a shabby caravan to live in, he displays nothing but gratitude, and appreciates the beauty of the surroundings that Johnny has always taken for granted. The Saxby family and the local villagers all appear to be a product of their own environment, a community of traditionalists stuck in a bygone era of a white, working class Northern England. Johnny is emblematic of this until he meets Gheorghe, whose influence instills a bravery in Johnny whereby he starts to embrace his sexuality and dictate the direction of his own life.
Authenticity is key to the success of God’s Own Country and nothing is more authentic than the director (son of a sheep farmer) shooting his feature length debut on the farm he grew up on. In addition to this, both Josh O’Connor (Johnny) and Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe) had to endure two weeks of intensive farm training, before each taking on their roles. I remember feeling really impressed by how ‘real’ the birthing and skinning scenes were - little did I know that they were indeed the real deal! The acting in this film is phenomenal and is stylistically complemented through its subtle use of steady long takes and simple editing.
After watching an interview with Francis Lee he described how ‘birth, life and death were part of everyday life growing up on a farm’. Throughout the film, he creatively uses wildlife and the landscape to create metaphorical parallels in reference to different stages of the story. All of the characters are stripped and reborn in some way, with Johnny and Georghe’s relationship being the catalyst to this change. Their beautifully complicated love story is a refreshingly real account of a modern day romance, and is strongly progressive in terms of addressing some extremely relevant social issues. God’s Own Country is one of my standout films of 2017 and definitely worth every tear shed!
Take in this beautiful, multi-layered film and put your questions to director Francis Lee at a special screening and Q&A event at FACT on 24 August. Book your ticket here.