God’s Own Country
Directed by Francis Lee. Produced by Manon Ardisson, Anna Duffield, Diarmid Scrimshaw, Jack Tarling. Written by Francis Lee. Cast . Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart, Gemma Jones. Cinematography Joshua James Richards. Edited by Chris Wyatt. Production companies. Inflammable Films, Magic Bear Productions, Shudder Films. 1hr 45mins. Cert. 15.
The BFI sponsored Gods Own Country provides this introduction – Both post-gay and pre-Brexit, Francis Lee’s debut feature is anything but a straightforward coming-out tale. Instead it’s an eerily beautiful love story between two men and the wild Yorkshire landscape. The film is partly based on writer and director Lee’s own life, where he also had to make a decision to either stay and work on his family’s farm, or whether to go off to drama school.
Francis Lees first feature film is a portrait of contemporary life in the Pennines for a family beset with troubles keeping their small farm going. Johnny Saxby played with grim determination, by a frequently sullen Josh O’Connor has the task of taking on his fathers chores and running the isolated hill top farm above the city of Bradford in its foothills. Keithley is in the civic boundaries of Bradford yet is a generation or two away from the complexities of urbanity and the arduous task of taking on a farms relentless time consuming running.
Endless labour and maintenance sits badly with John. He is nevertheless conscious of the help needed, as his father Martin played with sturdy robust effectiveness by Ian Hart, is in recovery from a stroke and is unable to walk without the aid of crutches. His grandmother who runs the house is the resolute Gemma Jones making up a strong cast who are joined by the fourth pillar of the film, Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) a seasonal worker. They have put out requests for assistance on the farm and his was the only reply.
From the beginning this film is framed simply around the central activities of the locality familiar to rural people and the land is suitable only for sheep grazing and rearing and the keep of some heifers. They are few and they are equally on a limited mission to produce the occasional calf. The work is centred on the sheep flock and the season is spring when plenty of work is needed. Day and night.
Johnny is seen in the initial stages as this forlorn character who is capable and knowing, in the labours and tasks which his father daily repeats. Martin still in charge, puts across his replayed management regardless of the wishes of a Johnny whose job is lonely and unsatisfying. The forlorn part of him sees no evidence of a future as the daily grind is unremitting. Also clear from the beginning is his waywardness and mental need for company and he embarks on satisfying his wants by having gay sex with a local who offers him this release which he uses as a separate but fraught fulfilment. It is contrasting with his bi-sexual failings with a young woman who has briefly returned from College and shows his anxiety at not being able to construct what might have been, signalled only, an alternative relationship of mutual satisfaction. He rails against this young brief returnee who all too clearly puts in place his fixity. He cannot and will not let down either his father or Grandmother and sees the road ahead as a tough and daunting reality which he must endure.
The predicament is played out extremely sensitively to show the sensitivity of commitment, to severance, with what is – the other member of the cast I failed to mention – Gods own Country – and the beautiful countrysid. It has barely altered rugged stones hill as grasslands climbing above the tungsten lights and sodium arcs other city of Bradford below. It venerates both the city and the locality of the farm in essence placing town against country in the narrative.
Land aplenty – another country
Gheorghe Is the incomer and Johnny is in need of his assistance big time. The work is gathering pace with work on fences, stone walls tumbled, feeding, heifers as well as sheep in the throes of birthing new born calves and lambs. Gheorghe is a stronger and more mentally attuned to the agricultural labours needed around him. That quickly becomes apparent this is something of a salvation for Gheorghe as it takes him back to the farming he grew up with. He comes from a country which has a greater wealth of agricultural land and is capable of feeding a large part of Europe but is is as he tells John, a Dead Country. Despite the Romanians having kept hold of a tough and contested country and past the days where the Romanians, because of some of their nation’s population being nomadic, denying them the rights of ‘landowners’ – the landgrabbers exploiting the displaced as well as the soil.
Education and self definition via. Religious or Cultural establishment was the legacy brought up to and into the 21st century. The land in Romania is unlike any other but migration has destroyed that country after fascist leaders and dictatorial penance brought on by countries neighbouring Romania continuing the explorations and failing to restore a country in turmoil from generations of internal torture and wilful suppression. The EU stood and watched and acted very slowly and inadequately which outcomes now confirm all too evidently.
Ways of living
Gheorghe Represents another way of doing things and he is in some harmony with this Pennine landscape as it reminds him of the lost opportunities fixed in his mind. Every task is fairly routinely known for him to manage as a farmer should and as many hands make light of work he brings a sense of comfort. John is drawn into exploring the world of Gheorghe and in a central part of the film they converge as both creatures needing each other’s form of contact. They become explicitly intimate and as with earlier scenes they engage in sexual acts which are filmed as escalating bonding.
With this central bonding taking place on the hills in the lambing season and the work interrupting their figuring out what their relationship means to each, the film tries to boil it down in the simplest terms and follows actions as each work away separately and in unison.
This period in which their friendship moves from initial hostility and challenge to friendship and then intimate sexual acts is also a time when John is less in need of the alcohol which his frequent disabuse of has his father and Grandmother outraged and despairing of. He also begins to appreciate the nature and the location more though it’s far from clear what is to happen.
In the hills they are alone to develop their unbridled kinship. It is drawn from their resources and from emptiness and creates a bond which John finds unquenchable. The story is lifted into a soulful place which is matched by the physicality of their relationship.
When they return after many days away on the hills living rough in tumbledown stone buildings and only a ‘student staple’ for a diet, (some lager is labelled but no product placement takes place!) it is to a different atmosphere as the routine is shifted with the father Martin being less clear as to his son’s mood and detects its alteration. It is a film about challenges and family with compromises and uncertainties. Both men are at similar points in their lives and are in choices are appearing. Gheorghe Is more fatalistic while at the same time is optimistic. John has no direction in mind and sees only the family responsibility as his primary focus. The stakes rise and the choices are starkly addressed.
I have colour enhanced some of the photographs from the online screen source and trailer and this is a brighter visual than the one seen.
There are a limited number of scenes away from the dales but when it reaches the dales in the hill camp while they tend the lambing sheep and look around them there is a rough and ready state contrasted with the natural continuity provided by the seasonal changes. Though shot for springtime the weather is harsh and little sunlight reaches here. It would have a brilliant resonance where it to carry on as a film into the ‘summer’ of a relationship as the fragile bond is seen in my mind as one which is left in the compass of things like an uncrossed border. Though everyone can make up their own mind there is a limbo of thought involved. There are shades of the family coming out narrative but again the backstory is unfleshed and comprises only the four principals. Apart from those shades the colour of the film is dulled beyond recognition and there is no metaphorical brightness of contrasting emotions on view. It is unfortunately meek and dull in colourist terms, which conflicts with the way the place and emotions might and could be envisaged. It is fixed in the melodramatic depressing theme in all honesty.
Spatial wonder of colour
When it is played out the only seemingly permanent thing possibly to be drawn from it would appear to be the relationship of people in need of helping one another and their being no sole path nor right or wrong way of approaching things but to be capable of discerning what choices are bad ones and not to be reliant on expectations. The other is the title provides, Gods own Country may seem a bit cliched as a title. It probably is and no God fearing etc. Tolerance was contained within it – to the naked eye – but it revokes a lot of prerceptions people might have on how relationships form and what attachments are drawn to them. It is a naked attempt quite literally by the writer to have audience affected by what they see and to put down their judgements and not to place notions of – cliched rhetorical retorts – onto something which ought not to concern them while putting forward means to adjust. While it is something of a long drawn out film to make such a point given the meter of open discussion on same sex marriage or civil partnerships, it also seems it an axiomatic subject and deals with the formation of relationships from wherever they gather.
The initial stages of the film are a shade dismal with the central figure, Johnny binge drinking, random sexual encounters and overstate the dynamic with some predictability on show. The authenticity is only raised by the farming composite – in Gods own Country – as it feeds the narrative and the quad bike is a staple road trip type journey into that landscape. Johnny on the farm duties after being told like a schoolboy what his tasks were by a disabled and confined bitter father. Bitterness rubbing shoulders. Mud and trailers and binder twine. There is a lot of shaking of hay later numerous sex scenes and they are sometimes overdrawn and I thought pointless in length and voyeuristic. They are mixed in locality for variance but after the initial physical bonding they develop little conversation of what they initial thought of each other or about themselves as relationship of any type require. The dialogue is brusque flat Northern and abrupt as well as dulling ly avoiding the centrality of what’s meant behind the words.
The encounters do fill space and the unfolding dynamic is perhaps necessarily spoken through the intimacies. There is an excellent eye for detail and the film was presumably able to get by with a limited budget and is not overstretching itself by being something of a cinematic juxtaposition of city versus rural visions and it seldom actually puts itself over as being of a lesson on England. It could in fact be anywhere. Montana. Utah. Austria. Romania. Spain. Shades of Brokeback Mountain perhaps. With the reliance on all those places on patterns of living which are changing rapidly and old values are being supplanted.
The realism is a feature which has the characters develop with some surety in their story and it is believable in that regard. It is an odd set up though with an only son, no relatives, – a scene at which some might be expected is a no show – and the mother never mentioned is not a narrative enabler but a stumbling block perhaps. It is a commentary made, narrow ranged, very well acted and thoughtful film of interest to many quarters but it laboured for me and didn’t offer too many tokens of insightful oblique unique view warranting it’s greater exposure. It was great do to see the exchanges though between the generations and the opposites colliding.
And there are plenty of secrets here. Following his father’s stroke, Johnny Saxby (a terrific, stoically anguished performance from Josh O’Connor) has been forced to take over the daily running of the farm. Surveying his efforts with thin-lipped disapproval are his grandmother (Gemma Jones) and his dad (Ian Hart). With vowels as flat and hard as flagstones, they pass judgment on his efforts. It’s hard to say which weighs him down more – the responsibility or the massive chip on Johnny’s shoulder. To numb his dissatisfaction, he binge-drinks and engages in angry bouts of gay sex with strangers.
Then Romanian worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives to help out over the lambing season. Limpid-eyed and almost painfully handsome, his presence unnerves Johnny, who finds it hard to unpick the difference between aggression and attraction. Their first sexual encounter is all sweat and spit, dirt and urgency. But Gheorghe brings some of the tenderness he shows to the animals into what soon becomes a relationship fuelled by Pot Noodles and stolen moments. Through Gheorghe, Johnny can once again see the beauty in the land he had started to regard as a tomb.
7 September 2017
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