While Yorkshire-born director Francis Lee brings authenticity to the screen with his depiction of rural labours, he fails to find honesty in God’s Own Country’s idealised central relationship.By Christos Tsiolkas.
‘God’s Own Country’
Francis Lee, the director and scriptwriter of God’s Own Country, is the son of Yorkshire farmers, and the film is at its best in its depiction of rural life. The authenticity of the scenes comes through not only when we see the characters working on the land or ministering to their livestock but also in the quiet and intimacy with which Lee shoots and frames domestic labour. This is Lee’s first feature film and his immersion in the working-class realism of British directors such as Bill Douglas and Ken Loach is clearly evident without being derivative. Lee is responsive to the sensuality of bodies, and one of the understated strengths of this film is in its straightforward treatment of male desire. There is a genuine eroticism at play here, whether it is seeing a shepherd tend to his flock or whether it is in the casual grace in how two men sit naked together after sex.
The main character is Johnny Saxby, played by Josh O’Connor, a young sheep farmer who is responsible for managing the family property now that his father, played by Ian Hart, is increasingly invalid. Johnny lives on the farm with his father and grandmother (Gemma Jones), and though it is clear he is competent and enjoys the work, there is also a real sense of his being constrained by the expectations of his family. When we first see Johnny he is vomiting, having woken with a hangover. It is sharply and economically conveyed, in the silent interactions with his father and grandmother, that his getting drunk is no rare occurrence. His life revolves around both the land and the local pub, and in one of the film’s best scenes he has an encounter with an old schoolfriend, Robyn (Patsy Ferran), who is now studying at university. It’s a deftly written scene, and beautifully played by both O’Connor and Ferran, and we understand that the options available to Johnny are limited. He doesn’t have the will or the desire for tertiary education and the escape that Robyn has made is not possible for him. Though quiet and unforced, the scene lands a terrific punch. We comprehend how the lack of choice distances him from his old friends and it makes sense of O’Connor’s playing Johnny with a core of desperation and fury. He can’t see a way out. All he’s got to look forward to is getting blind on booze and satisfying his desires in furtive homosexual encounters with strangers.
With the arrival of the lambing season, his father and grandmother arrange for a young Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe, played by Alec Secareanu, to come and assist on the farm. Though Johnny is initially suspicious of Gheorghe, the two young men begin a sexual relationship. With the introduction of Gheorghe, the film shifts from a realist and observational mise en scène to a more dramatically structured story of how these very different men deal with the challenges of falling in love. Unfortunately, with this shift, the honesty that kept me involved as a viewer dissipates. Gheorghe is strikingly handsome, confident in his work and in his masculinity, and seems immune to any personal demons. He is such an idealised character that the film loses all ballast.
Secareanu has one very lovely scene when he works expertly to get a ewe to adopt a newborn lamb. But this was the only moment in which I believed in him as a character. We get little sense of Gheorghe’s history or what has made him choose to work on a remote Yorkshire farm. And unfortunately, Secareanu, on the evidence of this film, lacks the resources as an actor to suggest levels of complexity in his playing of an immigrant. This failure is not his alone. Lee knows Johnny, and in this understanding he is prepared to show Johnny as diffident and unlikeable. But his conception of Gheorghe is a fantasy and we as viewers find ourselves increasingly remote from the film, asking basic questions such as what does this competent and beautiful Romanian man see in Johnny? It is telling that late in the film, when Johnny has gone searching for Gheorghe, he has a brief and almost wordless encounter with two Eastern European workers. In their stance, in their suspicion and distaste for the Englishman, they convey something of the tension and struggle that is often integral to the interactions between the immigrant and the native-born. It’s a great subject and one clearly pertinent to the way we all now live in this world. But in presenting an idealised immigrant, one who seemingly is unconcerned about the material questions and conflicts that ostensibly must frame his relationship with Johnny – who, after all, is his employer as well as his lover – Lee loses control of his film.
God’s Own Country keeps getting compared to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, but I think that comparison is largely superficial. Them both being a gay love story in a rural setting is about all that connects the films. Ang Lee’s film is one of the great romantic works of recent cinema and its power undoubtedly came from exploring the romance of ill-fated or forbidden love between two men. I think for so many gay men that film might have been the first time we were able to experience the rapture and excesses of melodrama freed from the distancing of subversion or camp. Francis Lee doesn’t have the sensibility for such romantic filmmaking. And even if he did, the superficial rendering of Gheorghe would undermine such an attempt.
A more fruitful comparison, in particular as to why God’s Own Country ultimately is unsatisfying, is with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake from last year. Loach casts a long shadow on British cinema, particularly when it comes to the depiction of working-class lives, and though I love his Kes, Family Life and Sweet Sixteen, there is a strain of sentimentality that can undermine the authenticity of his worlds. There was a moment in I, Daniel Blake when the recently unemployed middle-aged widowed main character is asking for assistance on how to turn on a computer and I thought to myself, “What the hell does this man do for porn?” Then I remembered it is a Loach film and good people in his world don’t do porn. By the time Daniel Blake was being a lovingly platonic angel of mercy to a young sex worker, I was pinching myself to keep awake. That kind of soppiness is antithetical to realist aesthetics and collapses our relationship of trust with the filmmaker. It’s exactly what occurs in God’s Own Country with the introduction of Gheorghe. He’s not an immigrant, he’s a saint. We don’t believe in him for a second and that means we stop believing in the film.
It’s a testament to Josh O’Connor’s naturalness on screen, and his commitment to exploring Johnny honestly and fearlessly, that he doesn’t get sunk by the wrong turn the film takes. O’Connor is doing something brave here, playing a man who is not very intelligent and whose reactions and decisions are rooted in his physicality and in his competitiveness. He doesn’t ever ask for our sympathy, even when the director is clearly signalling for it; even at his most vulnerable, the glare in Johnny’s eyes remind us of his capacity for violence and self-destruction. Ian Hart, too, manages to mitigate the sentimentality that effuses the movie in its latter half. When it’s just O’Connor and Hart on screen – in moments when the son is bathing his father after the older man’s stroke, or when the two of them, both suspicious of words, try to make sense of one another to each other – one wishes that Francis Lee had abandoned the fantasy of Gheorghe and Johnny’s relationship and concentrated on exploring the conflicts and union between these two men.
O’Connor’s performance is so good that my disappointment with this film is greater than when I see a lesser work. Johnny – and O’Connor – deserve better than the trite saintliness of Lee’s Gheorghe.
VISUAL ART Gregory Pryor
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as "Country discomfit". Subscribe here.